Gloves Off

Obama's Romney Smackdown

Before Romney pivots to the center, the Obama campaign flags his far-right stances. Eleanor Clift reports.

AP Photo; Getty Images

Despite Mitt Romney spending every waking hour these days proclaiming himself a conservative, most voters think he’s a moderate, for good or for ill. The label has hurt him in the primaries where conservative voters dominate, but assuming he’s the nominee, the moderate image he has worked so hard to shed will become useful again in winning over the swing voters who will decide the election.

Thus Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom’s all-too-honest comment Wednesday that his candidate would “hit a reset button for the fall campaign.” Conservatives went ballistic as Fehrnstrom compared the race to an Etch a Sketch toy: “You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

But the Obama campaign wants to be sure general-election voters remember the picture Romney is drawing now, working to remind voters how “severely conservative” the Republican says he is. It cites five issues where they say Romney has taken positions to the right of Rick Santorum: women’s health, labor unions, immigration, protecting homeowners, and appointing judges.

Though Santorum is regarded as the cultural warrior in the race, he voted as a U.S. senator to support funding for Title X, a program begun under President Nixon to provide preventive-health services and family planning to poor women. Romney has pledged to eliminate Title X funding if elected president, and when he brought up Santorum’s vote at one of the GOP debates, the partisan audience booed Santorum. Wooing women voters has become a recent priority of the Romney campaign, and with Ann Romney in the lead, the campaign may seek to soften some of Romney’s denunciations of Planned Parenthood, which receives federal money under Title X.

Romney attacked Santorum for siding with labor and opposing national so-called right-to-work legislation, which prohibits unions from compelling workers to join or pay dues, when he was a Pennsylvania senator. Romney has said that he supports such legislation, and would like to see it implemented on the national level (currently 23 states have right-to-work laws). There's no political cost to Romney here since labor is aligned with the Democrats.

Romney singled out immigration as an issue he could use to boost his conservative bona fides. Early in the race he staked out the most extreme position, moving to the right of not only Santorum but also Texas Governor Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Recognizing the growing clout of Hispanics in the electorate, this is an area where the Romney campaign will likely attempt a “reset.”

On the campaign trail, President Obama often refers to his opponent’s view that the housing market should “hit bottom” before government steps in. Obama doesn’t mention Romney’s name, but the former Massachusetts governor is a free-market capitalist and doesn’t think it’s government’s role to stop the foreclosure process. Santorum, on the other hand, does see a minimal role for government in easing the pain of people who are “under water” and owe more than their homes are worth.

Lastly, when Santorum was in the Senate, he voted in 1998 to confirm Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Circuit Court, helping position her for nomination to the Supreme Court by President Obama. Romney didn’t have a vote, but he called Sotomayor’s nomination “troubling.”

What does all this add up to? “They’re just having some fun,” says Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Not too many people believe Romney is more conservative than Rick Santorum, but it sets up the broader theme that Romney is inconsistent.” Pitney noted that he is reading The Real Romney by Boston Globe reporters Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, and he’s up to the about the 1994 Senate race where Romney, in a challenge to Ted Kennedy, emphasized his moderation and support for gay rights. “Romney’s conservative clothes still have the tags on,” says Pitney.

When Stu Rothenberg, publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, talks about Romney, he says his greatest strength and greatest weakness is the same thing: that nobody believes him. “Conservatives don’t believe he’s a conservative, and establishment Republicans—even though he’s spending every minute of every day saying how conservative he is, they don’t believe him, [and] that’s why they’re voting for him.”

While Romney’s rhetoric is more moderate than Santorum’s, said Rothenberg, his position on immigration is definitely to the right of Santorum’s. “On the other hand, nobody believes that. People say, Mitt is just saying that because he has to—it’s not really Mitt.”

Romney’s critics say he has no core, and predicting how he would govern if elected is a guessing game. Would he move to the center, or would his far-right rhetoric harness him? The closest analogy is George H.W. Bush, who relentlessly courted the GOP’s conservative base, but could never win their trust and ultimately lost reelection when he broke his “No New Taxes” pledge. Yet his nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court was a gift to conservatives that will keep on giving for many years.

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Romney won a convincing majority in Illinois, a big, diverse state where there aren’t as many evangelicals, and where Romney’s moderation appealed to more centrist Republican voters. “By running to the right for four years, has he defined himself as a conservative? Nobody believes it,” says Rothenberg. “If he were to the right of Santorum, conservatives would be voting for him—and establishment Republicans wouldn’t be voting for him.”

The Obama campaign has its eye on the prize: those all-important independent voters who will decide the election. By ripping off Romney’s fig leaf of moderation and exposing him for the conservative he now says he is, the Obama campaign hopes that when the general election rolls around “enough swing voters will take him at his word,” says Rothenberg.

“It’s a reasonable strategy, and it may work, but we’re not there yet.”