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2012 Watch: Romney and the South

A misleading "Boston Phoenix" story.

10:44 AM, Feb 11, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Mitt Romney is the subject of a long profile by David S. Bernstein in today's Boston Phoenix. Bernstein argues that Romney is moving back toward the center after running as a strong, anti-McCain conservative in 2008. According to Bernstein, in his forthcoming book the former Massachusetts governor will defend TARP, say climate change is for real, and argue that personal savings accounts must be a voluntary addition to Social Security, not replace the program altogether. Romney also will have to defend his Massachusetts health care plan, which is similar to the health bill pending in the Senate.

This is persuasive analysis. As the early frontrunner, Romney does not necessarily have to tack too far right -- he's already a known quantity to Republican voters, and the GOP establishment considers him "next in line" for the nomination. And yet, Bernstein also makes the questionable claim that "Romney is going to try to win without" Christian conservatives. And that means "skipping the South."

Really? Religious conservatives make up a significant portion of the GOP electorate; winning the nomination without them is clearly a next-to-impossible task (McCain squeaked through because at first the religious conservatives split their vote among the various candidates). The South, moreover, is the geographic base of the Republican party -- could a politician win the nomination with the Northeast, Midwest, Great Lakes, and Mountain States? Maybe, but he or she would have to sweep all those regions, which seems unlikely.

Romney is no dope; he understands how important the South is both in the Republican primary and in the general election.

Bernstein bases his claim on two pieces of evidence: (a) "Romney's PAC has started ignoring southern pols" and (b) "most revealing is Romney's decision not to attend this year's Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC) in April in New Orleans."

Let's look at these in reverse order. A spokesman for Romney's Free and Strong America political action committee tells me the governor isn't attending the SRLC because of a scheduling conflict. "The reason Mitt Romney is not attending the SRLC is because of conflicts with his book tour," says Eric Fehrnstrom. "The book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, comes out March 2 and he's on the road promoting it the entire month of March and half of April. During the SRLC, he'll be in Philadelphia (World Affairs Council speech), New Hampshire (St. Anselm's Institute of Politics speech and remarks to Politics and Eggs breakfast), Boston (Ford Hall Forum speech) and Minneapolis (book signing, Freedom Foundation speech)."

Nor does missing one conference signify rejection of an entire constituency. Sarah Palin made a highly publicized decision to skip next week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Does that mean she thinks she can win the nomination without conservative support? Hardly. The same rule applies to Romney.

Despite Bernstein's assertion to the contrary, Romney seems also to be paying attention to "Southern pols." In 2009 he campaigned and fundraised for South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, the Georgia House Republican Caucus, and the Duval County, Florida, GOP. This month, he's scheduled to appear at a joint fundraiser for Georgia congressmen Westmoreland, Gingrey, and Price, and another for Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack. Romney's book tour (the full schedule hasn't been released) will also take him through a variety of Southern locales.

Since losing the 2008 primary to John McCain, Romney has been expanding his political network. That expansion has not been limited to a particular area. Listen to him and his advisers: Romney will compete in the South.

Will southern Republicans vote for him? Now, that's an entirely different question.

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