National perspective

By careful measure, Romney's prospects raised

Mitt Romney may be in a stronger position for a presidential run than many would have imagined just six months ago. Mitt Romney may be in a stronger position for a presidential run than many would have imagined just six months ago.
By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / March 10, 2009
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WASHINGTON - For a while, it looked like Mitt Romney would become more a figure of ridicule than promise. Stiff, square, and allegedly two-faced, the former Massachusetts governor was a triple-punchline target of late-night comics.

But now, with a more statesmanlike bearing and some measured criticisms of the Obama administration, Romney suddenly seems like the only adult left standing among the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls.

It's early, of course - ridiculously early - for anyone except potential candidates to be thinking about the next presidential race. But there's been plenty of positioning going on in the now-leaderless GOP, including a head-scratching debut by one promising contender, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and a parade of speeches by some others at the Conservative Political Action Conference late last month.

And while much of the CPAC spotlight went to someone who isn't a candidate for president - radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who came off as either boorish or straight-talking, depending on your political temperature - it was Romney who walked away with the best reviews and victory in the convention's presidential straw poll.

On one level, this isn't surprising. Romney has aced the CPAC convention in past years, and always has made a special effort to woo conservatives to compensate for his moderate Massachusetts record.

Moreover, Romney's presidential race didn't go all that badly, especially considering that Republicans usually view a candidate's first campaign as a trial run. Running second, where Romney was when he withdrew and endorsed John McCain, can be a moral victory in a party where six of the last eight nominees had lost previously, and the exceptions - incumbent President Gerald Ford and presidential son George W. Bush - were already national names.

But all did not go well after Romney's withdrawal.

McCain strung him along for eight months while deciding on a ticket mate, obliging both Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to audition for the job before giving it to a surprise candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Then came Romney's lackluster speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul; dishing out some Palinesque us-against-them rhetoric, Romney sounded like a wannabe populist in a thousand-dollar suit.

Losing the vice-presidential nomination, however, turned out to be a blessing. It's unlikely that Romney could have helped the GOP avoid defeat, and the financial collapse in the midst of the fall campaign would have cast unflattering attention on Romney's associations with investors and bankers.

But the focus on economic issues that followed the campaign actually played to Romney's strengths. The former head of a private-equity firm, Romney has been one of the few Republicans to go beyond anti-pork rhetoric and talk in depth about economic issues.

Last month, he smartly cast his lot with his friend, former eBay impresario Meg Whitman, who is running for governor of California as an entrepreneurial savior. She's not a bad bet to win both the GOP nomination and the governorship, while test-driving Romney's message of economic growth.

And then, while Limbaugh and some other CPAC speakers were serving up cable-show vitriol, Romney made clear that he wished President Obama well and hoped for the best for the country. He then offered a more measured - and therefore more believable - critique of the new administration.

"Parts of the stimulus will, in fact, do some good," he averred. "But too much of the bill was shortsighted and wasteful.

"So far, the administration has been unclear on what it will do to address the huge decline in the pool of risk and investment capital," he said, arguing that an elimination of taxes on capital gains, dividends, and interest could spur investment.

He also broke with many in his party to endorse the bank bailout, but repeated his criticism of both Presidents Bush and Obama for using bailout funds to aid the auto industry.

Last fall, when he first declared his willingness to let the carmakers fail, Romney seemed to be defying his own Michigan roots as the son of an auto executive. But as General Motors and Chrysler beg for more money amid ever-darkening prospects, Romney's position may actually be ahead of the curve; he may have seen something in the carmakers' prospects that others didn't see as clearly.

Or else it could be what his critics insist it is: another furious gyration of a politician intent on making it to the top, in whatever vehicle he can find.

Be that as it may, Romney's latest moves have put him in a far stronger position than most people would have imagined just six months ago.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond. He can be reached at

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