Mitt Romney wants to eliminate government programs and shutter cabinet agencies. Doing so, he says, is “the critical thing” that needs to be done in order to bring government books back into balance and to begin restoring the promise of America. “Actually eliminating programs is the most important way to keep Congress from stuffing the money back into them,” he told me in a 30-minute interview on March 21. It’s a smart answer and a deeply conservative one.

But Romney, ever cautious, is reluctant to get specific about the programs he would like to kill. He did this in his bid for the Senate 18 years ago and remembers the political ramifications.

“One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney recalled. “So I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations. So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

Romney’s answer goes a long way to explain why some conservatives have been reluctant to embrace his candidacy. They want a list. They want it to be long, they want it to be detailed, and they want a candidate who is not only willing to provide one but eager to campaign on it. This is especially true after the historic success of the unapologetic, aggressive strain of conservatism that triumphed in the 2010 midterm elections.

That’s not Mitt Romney. It never will be.

In a conversation with him, you can feel him thinking about his words, trying to make sure he doesn’t say anything that could become the latest in a string of gaffes—some real, some manufactured—that have dogged his campaign. His inveterate risk-aversion often comes off as a lack of commitment to conservative policies and goals, a perception that confounds his advisers, who say that Romney, in the spirit of the turnaround campaigns that marked his career in the private sector, is dedicated to profound, even radical, changes in what the federal government does and how it operates.

Thus far, their assurances haven’t been enough. Exit polls in primaries show Romney has difficulty earning support from voters who identify themselves as “very conservative,” usually winning just one out of three voters in that group. If he’d been able to win a majority of those voters, he would have been the de facto nominee weeks ago. But their resistance continues. Even in his decisive victory in Illinois, he won just 36 percent of self-identified “very conservative” voters. I asked him why.

“You know, I don’t know that I’m the pundit that can make that analysis for you,” he says with the laugh that often accompanies his answers to difficult questions. “I describe what my positions are on issues and lay out my policy and people will either warm to it or not, depending upon how they connect with it. So as to all of the factors that are associated with those that support me and those that support me less—well, I’m going to let you do that work.”

After I told him that I wasn’t sure I’d done that analysis well, he offered something of an answer.

“Obviously there are some for whom coming from Massachusetts is an issue,” he theorizes. “There are some—the health care plan in Massachusetts they can’t get over. There are others for whom religion is an issue. You’ll have to do the cross-tabs on a lot of things to figure out where that is, but one thing I can assure you is that the one group that will certainly be with me in the general election if I’m the nominee will be conservatives and very conservatives. Because they’re certainly not going to vote for Barack Obama.”

Romney had given a similar answer to Megyn Kelly in an interview on Fox News. Conservatives grumbled that his answer suggested his campaign was taking them for granted. Even in a Romney-Obama general election contest, the choice for potential voters isn’t binary. Republicans unenthusiastic about the nominee could stay home. According to exit polls, some 4 million fewer Republicans voted in 2008 than had turned out four years earlier. And polls suggest that enthusiasm for the Republican frontrunner this time is lower than it was at a similar point in the 2008 contest.

Nonetheless, a repeat of those turnout woes seems unlikely, in part because the Barack Obama on the ballot won’t be an abstraction—a candidate who ran as a post-partisan leader vowing to end the wars and economic uncertainty that seemed to exhaust Americans at the end of the Bush administration. He is, instead, a president with a record, a man who has added more debt in three years than his predecessor added in eight and whose two signature domestic policy achievements—the stimulus and Obamacare—are so unpopular that Democrats avoid using the terms. The list of his foreign policy and national security accomplishments doesn’t go far beyond authorizing the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

Still, for Romney to take conservatives for granted would be “political malpractice,” according to a highly regarded Republican strategist not affiliated with any presidential campaign. “An animating feature of the explosive growth of the Tea Party was due to their being dismissed (even before they were dissed and demeaned) as an insignificant voice.”

Romney hasn’t ignored this part of the Republican base. He has appeared at Tea Party events, he is a regular on conservative talk radio, and he has courted their leaders.

Last Thursday Romney reached out to the de facto leader of that group on a trip to Washington. Senator Jim DeMint, who vowed not to endorse in the Republican presidential primary, came awfully close in comments to reporters after that meeting.

“I can tell conservatives from my perspective that, I’m not only comfortable with Romney, I’m excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee,” he said.

The following day, Senator Pat Toomey, a DeMint ally and former head of the Club for Growth, also praised Romney. “I think Mitt Romney is a conservative, and I think if elected he’ll govern as a conservative.” That, of course, is the big question. To have a movement conservative like Toomey offer that kind of backing is no small thing.

Toomey added: “I think Governor Romney is absolutely committed to the principles of limited government. I think he knows the free enterprise system is a source of prosperity, and opportunity, and personal fulfillment, and elevating people out of poverty.”

Toomey will not endorse, but his words echo those Romney uses on his own behalf. “I have a number of liberal folks I’ve met with, and I listen to them and I think, ‘How can you be so clueless? How do you not understand that free enterprise is the only economic strategy which has ever lifted people out of poverty and provided long-term prosperity? And you continue to try and find ways to attack free enterprise?’ I simply don’t understand it.”

The president is one of those liberals. Romney’s critique of Obama is often focused on competence more than ideology. “He’s a nice guy, but he’s in over his head,” Romney often says.

Why not say more about ideology? Romney says the two critiques are mutually reinforcing.

Obama, he says, has an “agenda which is contrary to the interests of the economy and the nation. And I think a lot of people who have that agenda are clueless.”

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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