Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Primary Balancing Act

Every presidential primary season candidates face the challenge of reaching out to the party base without painting themselves into a corner by alienating the independents and centrist voters that are required to win a general election. It's a balancing act that successful candidates must master. I'm curious as to how people think Romney is doing in this regard. Two issues in particular have jumped out at me over the past couple of days as I think about Romney and this "balancing act" are immigration and the right to life.
Immigration: Of the GOP front-runners, Romney clearly has the most conservative position on illegal immigration. It makes sense considering it's an issue that many of the conservatives Romney is trying to court feel pretty passionate about. I wonder how his tough talk on "amnesty" will go over in a general election. Hardline stances on immigration purportedly helped to sink a few Republican election bids in the House this past fall and many heavy weights that have influence in the Republican party advocate a much more moderate stance (President Bush, RNC Chair Mel Martinez, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, etc.). There are areas of the country where Romney's hardline clearly doesn't go over well. Florida for instance. This past weekend during his visit there, Romney avoided talking about the issue as much as possible, but still got bruised in the Florida press over it. Yesterday in Arizona, however, he made an effort to emphasize his position, even suggesting state and local police agencies make "deals with the federal government to have their officers trained in enforcing elements of federal immigration law." It doesn't seem to help that this is another issue he seems to have shifted positions on. Just last year he seemed to support what he now lambasts as "amnesty," telling the Lowell Sun that he didn't "believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country. With these 11 million people, let’s have them registered, know who they are. Those who’ve been arrested or convicted of crimes shouldn’t be here; those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country." Ultimately, I think this is a tough issue for Romney, because he needs the support of the part of the base that feels most strongly about this issue, and yet his position is destined to alienate many who might support him (for example, there is no way anyone who advocates such a hardline on immigration will pick up anywhere near the 41% of the Hispanic vote that Bush picked up in 2004).

Right to Life: Romney's come a long way this past year in his efforts to reassure social conservatives about his position on right-to-life issues. He touts his opposition to abortion and certain forms of stem-cell research at nearly every campaign stop and has brought well-known pro-life advocates like James Bopp onto his campaign. Certainly, this is something that most concede he must do if he wants to burnish his credentials as the "real" conservative in the race and remain competitive in the GOP primaries next year. This past weekend, however, he seemed to push back against social conservatives just a little as he spoke out against the government intervention in the Terri Schiavo case a couple of years ago. Even though this position places him safely with most of the American public, it hurts him among the pro-life base he is currently reaching out to. Many pro-life blogs were quick to denounce his position and Schiavo's brother promptly endorsed Sam Brownback. Add to this Romney's balancing act on stem cell research (opposing somatic cell nuclear transfer (i.e. "therapeutic cloning"), but generally supporting the use of frozen embryos from IVF clinics that would otherwise be discarded. These deviations, again, put him in the mainstream of popular opinion, but they could potentially hurt him in his push for the nomination. He's gone out of his way to brand himself as being with social conservatives on all of these issues, to be contrasted with deviants like McCain and Giuliani.
While the balancing act is a challenge for most politicians, I think it is a particularly difficult one for Romney in this election because he doesn't seem well-positioned to garner the more independent-leaning conservatives who appear to be flocking to Giuliani and McCain at this point. He NEEDS the social conservative voters who are disenchanted with Giuliani and McCain's more moderate positions on a host of issues. Part of me feels like Romney almost has to put off worrying about how he will cast himself as a general election candidate and just focus on the primaries. It may cause a few problems for him image-wise in a general election campaign, but I think he'd prefer to have to deal with those sorts of problems than be watching from the sidelines.

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