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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


Mitt Romney, the best of a bad Republican lot Add to ...

Mitt Romney, the Tin Man of the Republican Party, will be that party’s nominee for president, for no other reason than the collection of misfits, egotists, ideologues and second-raters running against him.

Just as the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, so Mr. Romney is the best of a bad Republican lot. You doubt that description? Then just imagine Ron Paul atop the ticket, the 76-year-old favouring a return to the gold standard, abolition of the Federal Reserve and five federal departments, and the return of U.S. troops from overseas everywhere. That he finished third in the Iowa caucuses proves that, when economic quackery meets foreign-policy delusion, good things can happen inside the Republican Party.

Or Rick Santorum, who couldn’t defend his Senate seat in Pennsylvania and who’s a strict constructionist and social conservative, with zero appeal outside that hardy minority of Americans. Or let’s not forget – although Republicans quickly did when they thought about it – Newt Gingrich, who couldn’t open his mouth without insulting someone, reminding voters of his unfitness for high office. The more Iowans heard from Newt, the less they thought of him.

There were also, of course, Michele Bachmann (who departed the race after being humiliated in Iowa) and the comic figure of Rick Perry, the lantern-jawed cliché machine from the governor’s office in Texas who, like Mr. Gingrich, saw an inverse relationship between his appearances and his popularity. Mr. Perry, lost in his own delusions, intends to carry on his hopeless cause until he runs out of cash, which will happen before he runs out of ego.

So, faute de mieux, there stood Mitt Romney, an eight-vote winner in Iowa but assured of victory in Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, a state adjacent to Massachusetts, where Mr. Romney was once a moderate Republican governor. Unpleasantness lies ahead in South Carolina, a state where the blackest of political arts play themselves out, and perhaps in Florida, with its Christian crusaders. Thereafter, Mr. Romney should be in friendlier states, with no serious opponents to harry him.

Being a Republican in Massachusetts, let alone a politically successful one, required Mr. Romney to govern like a moderate conservative, in the tradition of Paul Cellucci (a former governor and ambassador to Canada) or William Weld (another former governor). Mr. Romney stepped into that mould and filled it well, designing, among other accomplishments, a health-care plan that was a template for the one crafted by President Barack Obama.

Of course, now that Mr. Romney is running for the Republican nomination – which means appealing to the party’s hard core – he has disavowed his health-care creation as a model for the whole country. Likewise, he has reversed or amended other moderate positions that worked in Massachusetts but riled up red-meat conservatives who vote in Republican primaries.

About being a Mormon, there’s nothing Mr. Romney can do. That might be a problem in the southern Bible Belt and other parts of the country where evangelical Christians see Mormonism as a freakish religion contesting Christian beliefs.

Mr. Romney has oodles of money – from contributors and from his own pocket, having earned piles as a takeover artist at Bain Capital. His strongest pitch must be that he knows how to run big things, such as that company, Massachusetts and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. These are undeniably significant accomplishments.

Were Republicans looking for administrative competence, packaged with can-do rhetoric, these successes would count for more than they apparently do. Instead, many Republicans are looking for inspiration around issues that get them fired up – “family values,” social conservatism, God-fearing practices, the smallest government possible but with a mighty military, yet lower taxes, a finger-in-the-eye attitude toward countries that disagree with the United States.

Mr. Romney struggles to convert them, but, like the Tin Man, he just can’t convince them that, inside that handsome package, his heart and theirs really do beat in tandem. They fear (and not without reason) that, to win the presidency, he would tack and trim, dilute party principles and become a centrist political apostate.

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