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The Right Man

The GOP is desperate for a real conservative. Can Mitt Romney contort himself to become one? And what if he does?

Willard Mitt Romney enters the press room at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, where a conclave of conservative GOP congressmen has gathered to plot its resurrection. Assuming his place before the cameras, the former Massachusetts governor checks the floor to find his mark: two strips of white tape forming a small X on the low-pile carpet beneath his feet. Romney plants his shoes squarely on the X and starts offering answers so tightly scripted and robotic that he brings to mind Max Headroom—then, all of a sudden, he’s distracted and off-kilter. “This white spot on the floor here, this marker, is stuck to my heel here,” he mutters, staring downward and doing a little jig, ignoring the question just put to him (on Iran) until the damn thing finally falls from his loafer.

The metaphor suggested by Romney’s performance is too perfect to resist. By all accounts, including his own, Romney has been for most of his life a middle-of-the-road Republican of moderate views on issues from abortion to gun control to taxes. But ever since he decided to run for president—a decision he will make official on February 13—he has labored to present himself as a rock-ribbed man of the right. He has hired a team of White Tape People to tell him where he needs to stand to win his party’s nomination. He has gamely hit his marks. And yet now, just as Romney seemed to be establishing a foothold, he finds himself increasingly tangled up in his own inconvenient record.

The conspicuous and occasionally ruinous flip-floppery of presidential candidates is nothing new, of course. (See Kerry, John, 2004.) Nor is avid pandering to the GOP’s extremist constituencies by previously non-wing-nut Republicans. (See McCain, John, 2008.) Romney’s offenses in both these categories are, no doubt, egregious. But the fact that, in spite of his current struggles, Romney is still taken seriously illustrates a number of the central dynamics driving the campaign on the Republican side. At a moment when the Democrats, miraculously, have at hand a troika of top-tier candidates—Clinton, Obama, Edwards—who are capable of drawing thousands-strong crowds (in early 2007, for heaven’s sake) and look like eminently credible winners, the GOP is saddled with a crop of hopefuls at once uninspiring and implausible. Also with a president who seems determined to dig the already-cavernous hole in which the party is mired all the way to China. As Republican despond edges toward despair, the desperate search for a savior is beginning to kick into high gear. Hence the rise of Romney.

At first glance, he has the appearance of an attractive standard-bearer. A successful businessman (he made a fortune as the CEO of Bain & Company and founder of Bain Capital) and organizer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics before becoming the Bay State’s governor, in office he pushed for the passage of a health-care reform plan applauded on both the right and the left. He’s well spoken and great-looking, with blindingly white teeth and a head of hair that rivals Ronald Reagan’s in the annals of Republican follicular achievement.

But Romney’s drawbacks are as glaring as his assets—starting with his Mormonism. “Look, let’s be honest, Mormons are weird,” says a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Massachusetts, voicing a view widely shared by secularists and Evangelicals alike. (According to a recent poll, only 38 percent of voters say they’d definitely consider backing a Mormon for president.) Romney, a church “elder” who served as a missionary and whose great-grandfather had five wives, will surely attempt to deal with the issue by pulling a JFK: declaring that his faith would never impinge on his political obligations. Equally likely is that he’ll abandon lame-ass humor as a tactic, given that his japes in the past—“I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman,” he cracked to Don Imus last year—seem, unsurprisingly, to have put no one’s mind at ease.

At the moment, however, Romney’s religion is causing him fewer headaches than his policy gymnasticism. As a challenger to Ted Kennedy in 1994 and in his 2002 statehouse bid, Romney was unequivocally pro-choice (“I believe that abortion should be safe and legal”). Today, he is just as unequivocally pro-life. On gun control, Romney in 1994 supported the Brady bill and a ban on assault weapons, adding, “I don’t line up with the NRA.” Today, he declares, “I’m a member of the NRA.” On gay rights, in 1994 and 2002, Romney argued that he’d be a more aggressive advocate of domestic partnerships than his Democratic foes—and then did little, in the view of the right, to resist the legalization of gay marriage in his state. Today, Romney thunders against the latter concept and against civil unions too. Same story on stem-cell research.