The many tests for Mitt Romney

At the Values Voter Summit this weekend, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was confronted with one of the many tests he will have to pass on his way to the GOP nomination and perhaps the presidency in November 2012. A supporter of Texas Governor Rick Perry, Pastor Robert Jeffress, referred to Romney as a moral man, but not a true Christian because of his Mormon faith. He went on to characterize Mormonism as a cult and not a genuine Christian religion.

Perry, to his credit, did not endorse the incendiary statements of his supporter, but the battlelines were drawn for the primary battles to come in Iowa and South Carolina, where social conservatives will play a major role in determining who will be President Obama’s opponent next year.

Mitt Romney is re-emerging as the leading candidate now that Rick Perry has begun to struggle, Michelle Bachmann is flaming out in the polls, and Chris Christie has refused the overtures of establishment Republicans. Herman Cain may be surging in the polls, but many see him as the latest flavour of the week.

Romney, however, suffers from a chronic enthusiasm deficit. Polls of Republican supporters show steady but unimpressive support that’s persistently below 25 per cent. Just as in 2008, Romney starts ahead but seems to have trouble closing the deal.

Despite Romney’s stronger performance in debates and a better knowledge of the issues than in 2008, the ‘anybody-but-Romney’ forces remain a significant obstacle. Social conservatives raise the faith issue, Perry points to the past political convictions and performance of the former Massachusetts governor, and the Tea Party simply don’t trust him. All three factors will dog Romney in the nomination battle and should he emerge as the nominee, they will likely resurface in the general election.

Why is this? After all, Romney has impressive credentials—an exemplary family man, a successful businessman, and significant political acumen. Given the bad economy, his support should be over 40 per cent, especially in a field of flawed and, in some cases, extreme candidates. Yet, he does not energize a political base. His detractors say he is a phony with no convictions and his supporters just talk about his better chances of beating Obama next year. It seems that beating Obama is more important than building alternative policies that can be attractive to mainstream voters—those who will decide the next president.

Romney’s flip flops on social and cultural issues late in life regarding abortion and gay rights will be suspect in a general election and could be seen as character flaws. His record on taxes and job creation in Massachusetts contrast poorly with Rick Perry’s record in Texas. And his defense of Romneycare as opposed to Obamacare remain unconvincing to both the GOP base and mainstream voters.

Can he win the nomination and beat Obama? It is still early to tell but his chances of winning the nomination took a big leap forward with Christie out. The Values conference may also help as social conservatives, for fear of being seen as intolerant, may be inclined to accept Romney so long as they think he can beat Obama. Finally, Romney’s perceived phoniness may actually help him with independent voters, so long as he can come across as moderate compared to his party. Whatever happens, this weekend’s test is bound to be the first of many.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.