KANSAS CITY, Kansas – Barring some big political development that again upends the conventional wisdom, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still seems poised to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Here in the center of America newspapers are filled with stories about the Republican political nomination battle.
The former moderate-but-now-conservative Romney is dominating the national political news cycle here in America’s geographical center.
But his biggest battle lies ahead: can Romney win the country’s political center in what increasingly is shaping up to be a toss-up presidential election?
And can he do it without risking the wrath of the GOP’s distrustful conservative base?
By most measures, these should be happy days for the man who would have been the perfect late 20th century Republican candidate. Despite gaffes suggesting his mouth is a powerful magnet and his feet are made out of metal, Romney is the race’s current front-runner (but unloved).
The way Romney unleashed his PACs and used his own rhetoric to politically dismember chief rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Iowa and Florida proved he has the ruthlessness to go all the way.
But this has taken a huge toll on Romney. Press scrutiny and increased coverage haven’t been kind to him. The media has chronicled his often clumsy and unconvincing move to the right and dutifully covers an outraged Gingrich, now pursuing what Gingrich’s former colleague Dick Armey calls a “first-class vendetta” against Romney. Stories about the low taxes Romney pays plus his gaffe about not caring about the poor got widespread coverage and provided material for TV comedians.
The result? A national poll finds that 52 percent to 24 percent the more Americans learn about Romney, the more they don’t like him. Why is this important?
The public already knows what can be known about Barack Obama. Romney faces the prospect of more erosion as more unflattering info about him seeps out.
It’s a truism of American politics that to win a nominee has to move to the center to attract independents after wooing the more ideological party base in primaries.
But can Romney? If he does he’ll have to do it slowly or risk angering conservative GOPers. Given the nature of 21st century communications, it will be harder for him than ever.
More than ever, Romney’s every word and breath will be analyzed and draw a response from not just Democrats but 24/7 cable news, new and old media, You Tube posters, bloggers, and the growing number of activists among the 300 million worldwide who Tweet -- and link to the new and old media. Candidates used to be able slowly tip toe towards the center.
Plus, team Obama has a wealth of footage of Romney in his moderate incarnation waiting to be aired that’ll be new to many Americans.
If Romney tries to shift too much to the center, conservatives could stay home. Analysts point to lower turnout in the Republican primary in Florida and the Nevada caucuses compared to 2008 as partially due to a lack of conservative enthusiasm.
Romney must keep his party’s conservative base, run an aggressive campaign taking it to Obama, positively redefine himself, offer solid policy alternatives, and perceptively edge to the center to win independents.
Polls show that as he battles Gingrich his negatives go up -- and his appeal to independents goes down.
What can Romney do to soften his image while playing hardball?
More often than not when attempting humor he stumbles or brings to mind part of the lyric from “Oh What a Beautiful Morning:” “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.”
From the look of it, it’ll be easier for the corn to climb clear up to the sky than for Mitt Romney to easily move to the center.
(Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)