Having won primaries in New Hampshire and Florida, Mitt Romney’s chances of becoming the GOP’s standard bearer seem likely enough to provoke speculation about his post-nomination efforts. But Romney still struggles with the GOP’s most conservative “tea party” voters.
This problem will have to be rectified either before — or after — Romney wins the nomination. Conservatives are the strongest ideological faction in America today. And so the question lingers: Getting the band back together; If David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel can do it, why not Mitt and the tea party?
Most people I talked to believe it’s doable. Ed Gillespie, a movement conservative who also served as RNC chairman, believes there are three major moments which Romney can use to persuade conservatives: The GOP convention, the vice presidential pick, and the debates. Most observers believe the veep choice is most significant.
Romney will “very quickly need to focus on picking a conservative vice president,” says Gary Marx, the Executive Director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who also ran Romney’s conservative coalitions outreach effort in 2008. “Ultimately John McCain was able to get more evangelicals turning out and voting for him in ’08 than even Bush did in ’04,” recalls Marx. “So he was able to mend fences due in large part to that vice presidential choice.”
But things could still go very wrong. Conservatives remain skeptical about Romney, and many worry he will attempt to immediately reposition himself toward the center upon winning the nomination. “What conservatives fear,” says Greg Mueller, who has worked for Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan, “is he will succumb to a push by the GOP establishment and the media to appease some phantom centrist constituency and starts moderating his language and positions.”
Others urge keeping the lines of communication open — even if conservative opinion leaders attack him now. “I think a pitfall would be to ignore talk radio,” cautions Marx. “No matter what’s said in the venue, you still reach out and do the interviews with Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — and make sure that behind the scenes there are open channels of communication with Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and that world.”
Center-right outlets have long complained about a lack of access to the candidate. “Maybe they could start by talking to non-liberal journalists,” said this site’s founder, Tucker Carlson. “There aren’t many, and they’re pretty easy to find.”
The danger, of course, is — if not handled sufficiently — conservatives either bolt for a third party, or (more likely), sit home on general election day. “Many grassroots conservatives feel like they’re about to be forced into an arranged marriage,” says Will Franklin, a former Rick Perry aide. “I wouldn’t put it past some of them to elope with someone else or go into hiding through November if they aren’t properly romanced.”
Conservatives want to feel like they at least have a voice. But while outreach is appreciated, pandering is not. Several sources stressed to me the danger that Romney could come across looking transparently “phony” if the outreach were blatant.
“Romney will never be the movement conservative’s favorite. And he shouldn’t try to be,” said one noted political consultant. “For conservatives we can enter the alliance eyes wide open. But together as allies we can preserve our differences and triumph over Obama’s left wing agenda that is our mutual opponent.”
Attacking Barack Obama is an obvious way Romney can win over — and motivate — some conservatives without appearing to pander. “One thing Governor Romney could do right now is step out and speak out on the blatant, over the top attacks from the Obama Administration on religious liberty,” says Mueller.
Gillespie also suggests that Romney make “the moral critique” of Obama’s economic policies.
If Romney wants to persuade conservatives, says ForAmerica chairman Brent Bozell, he should “stop talking about his resume and start talking about specific policy proposals that will truly restore our freedoms while reducing the runaway federal government.”
Some of the sources I spoke with suggested an all-out effort to woo conservatives.
Bozell, for example, urges Romney to make peace with his primary opponents. “Both Santorum and Paul can be helpful, and if nominated Romney should make it clear they will be in a Romney administration, Santorum on social policy, and Paul on monetary policy,” he said.
“And yes, make peace with Gingrich. Find a way, even if informally, to bring his brain to the table. A united front is what Romney will need against Obama,” said Bozell.
Others agreed. “The key is to have both Santorum and Ron Paul speak at convention. …Newt too,” said Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist.
Republican strategist Paul Wilson floated another unique idea: “My suggestion to Mitt is to hold a one of a kind National Conservative Unity Conference in July” before the convention, he said.
“CPAC was when candidates talked to conservative leaders,” Wilson continued. “This would be the reverse.”
“The purpose would be to unite the Party and prepare for battle against Obama. But more than that it would be a time to develop a personal relationship between conservatives and the future nominee,” he said.
Ultimately, the proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. “It is not a matter of token gestures like VP selection or anointing some grey beards from DC from the movement to be his liaisons,” warns former Perry adviser Dave Carney. “Real outreach will only come with trust and time. His words, his deeds, his policy advisers and platform will all be important to reassure the right that he can be a true trusted partner.”