Conservative opposition threatens to unravel Romney′s campaign | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 24.01.2012
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Conservative opposition threatens to unravel Romney's campaign

Mitt Romney is a self-made millionaire with leadership experience and a scandal-free private life. So why doesn't the influential conservative wing of the Republican Party like him?

Mitt Romney

Many conservative Republicans don't trust Mitt Romney

The writing that staunch conservatives within the Republican Party have deep-seated problems with Mitt Romney had been on the wall since at least January 14.

That was when some 150 social conservatives at a gathering in Texas threw their support behind Rick Santorum - and not the perceived frontrunner Romney. A few weeks later, Santorum, not Romney as we now know, went on to win the Iowa caucuses.

And if anyone needed further proof how fraught with distrust the relationship between Romney, the millionaire business man and former Massachusetts governor, and his party really is, the South Carolina primary provided ample evidence.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, beat Romney handily by 40 to 28 percent in an election that saw a record turnout and where according to 2008 figures as many as 60 percent of the voters described themselves as born-again Christians.

Value voters chose Santorum - and Gingrich

While the social conservative backing of Santorum, an ardent opponent of abortion and gay marriage and a foreign policy hawk, may be hard to swallow but still explicable for Romney, their strong push for Gingrich must truly befuddle him.

How can it be that the family-values wing of his party chose a twice-divorced and three-times married politician whose second wife in a bombshell interview days before the South Carolina primary called him morally unfit to be president over Romney?

Newt Gingrich with his wife Callista after his win in South Carolina

Newt Gingrich connects better with the Republican right

How could they support a politician like Gingrich who is proud of having grandiose ideas, is all but a small government conservative and in 2008 posed with the Republican nemesis - then house speaker Nancy Pelosi - in a TV ad to combat global warming which many conservatives consider a hoax?

The answer comes in three parts.

First, there is religion. While some Christian conservatives have made their peace with Romney's Mormon faith, many have not. Mormons do consider themselves to be members of the Christian faith, but many conservative Christians do not.

"In fact there have been some evangelical leaders who have publicly called Mormons members of a cult," says Margie Hershey, an expert on political parties and elections at Indiana University in Bloomington. "And that certainly gets in the way of former Governor Romney's ability to gain support from evangelicals."

Moderate governor

Second, there is Romney's political record. Try as he might he simply can't shake his past as governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal US states. For a Republican to win the highest political office in the home state of the liberal icon Ted Kennedy, Romney couldn't campaign or govern as a staunch conservative.

Instead, he steered a moderate to liberal course like one would expect from the governor of a very liberal state. One of his signature achievements during his tenure has come back to haunt him: As governor, Romney signed into law a health-care reform that became a partial blue print for President Barack Obama's remake of health care, dreaded and derided by Republicans as Obamacare.

On social issues such as abortion and gay rights, Romney also took a centrist stance, which he disavowed after the end of his governorship. While Romney argues that he has changed his mind on abortion because he since has learned facts that he didn't know before, some in his party simply don't buy it.

"Many of the social conservatives among the Republicans regard that as an apostasy that he just changed his mind in order to get political support rather than actually changing his feelings about the issue," notes Hershey.

Disconnected elitist

Romney's third problem and perhaps his most troubling has nothing to do with traditional values, matters of faith or political record. It's simply the way he comes across and explains why thrice-married Newt Gingrich, the only sitting speaker of the House of Representatives to be reprimanded by a bipartisan vote that effectively ended his tenure as speaker, can win over Christian conservatives and Mitt Romney can't.

Gingrich and Romney

The Republican race could be decided between Gingrich and Romney

"Romney is an elitist," says Andreas Falke, professor of international studies with a focus on the US at Friedrich-Alexander-University in Erlangen-Nürnberg. "He has a double degree from Harvard University. He is not the guy you want to have a beer with. And a lot of these conservatives and less wealthy and less educated Republicans don't feel comfortable with a man like this."

Unlike his more eccentric rival Gingrich, Romney is notoriously bad at faking to be just an ordinary guy, for instance when he challenged his former rival Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet during a debate last month. His failure to connect with people and his boring public appearances has earned him characterizations as soulless and nicknames like automaton and Romney-bot.

Even worse, the two crucial issues where until now he seemed to have the upper hand over all his rivals even among conservatives - electability and economic expertise - also seem to be slipping from his grasp. South Carolina voters, according to exit polls, overwhelmingly named the economy and beating Barack Obama as their key concerns - and overwhelmingly cast their ballot for Newt Gingrich.

Should conservative Republicans, who in recent years have increasingly determined the course of the party, decide in the first primary in a big state, Florida, that Gingrich is electable and that he can fix the economy, then despite his huge coffers Romney's campaign could falter as it did in 2008.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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