NASHUA, N.H.—“Barack Obama has failed America,” Mitt Romney declared amid tractors and hay bales at a verdant New Hampshire farm about 50 miles northwest of here. The president made the recession “worse, and he made it last longer,” Romney argued. The former corporate executive added that he was better suited to turning the economy around because “if you want to create jobs, it helps to have had a job.” Word for word, the pitch sounds awfully like Romney’s stump speech in the waning days of the New Hampshire campaign, as polls showed him coasting to victory in the nation’s first primary and closing in on the Republican nomination.
But Romney delivered that critique at the farm in Stratham on June 2, 2011—the day he officially launched his campaign for president, long before his competition jelled or the nomination seemed inevitable. “If you go back and read that, which we do regularly, you’ll see he’s been consistent,” says Romney adviser Stuart Stevens. “Our goal was to be able to give the same speech the day before the general election, were he lucky enough to be the nominee.”
Republicans usually steer to the right during the primary campaign to appease conservatives, and then scurry back toward the Democratic and independent voters they need to win the general election, but Romney has been running down the middle from the start. His careful posture makes him a potentially formidable challenger to President Obama, although it also explains the relatively limited enthusiasm for him in his own party. On the economy, on foreign policy, and on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, Romney has positioned himself as conservative—but not too conservative.
Instead of outflanking his opponents on the right, he quotes from “America the Beautiful.” It’s less red meat, more red, white, and blue. “On the whole, Romney is very well positioned for the general,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a top domestic-policy adviser on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign who stayed neutral this time. “He has been extremely disciplined in this campaign, much more so than in 2008, and has largely contrasted himself with the president. He’s been positioning himself for the general election this entire time.”
Still, Romney is far enough to the right that Democrats will try to brand him as a conservative extremist. His support for the upper-income tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, coupled with his tepid backing of a payroll-tax cut, shows his disdain for the middle class, they say. They point to his praise for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed overhaul of entitlement programs as evidence he would dismantle Social Security and Medicare. His hard-line stance against illegal immigrants—he rejects giving legal status even to college students or the members of the armed forces—demonstrates callousness toward the Hispanic community, the argument goes. Weeks before Romney won his first nominating contest, Obama’s allies began attacking him as a tea party-worshipping Republican ideologue. “He’s going to have to answer for those positions in the general,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, holding court in the spin room after a recent GOP primary debate.
Romney’s 2008 campaign raised his national profile, taught him the pitfalls of a GOP primary, and honed his debating skills.
Now that the general-election campaign is all but under way, the Republican Party is framing the race as a referendum on Obama’s stewardship of the economy. The Democratic Party is casting it as a choice between the president and a corrupt challenger. “The old law in politics is, ‘You think I’m bad? Meet the other guy.’ That’s going to be the Obama campaign,” says Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who has worked for Romney but is neutral in the 2012 race. “The challenge for Romney, if he’s the nominee, is going to be: How does he keep it focused on the failures of the president and still show a forward vision?” It’s a good thing, then, that the former Massachusetts governor spent the last year setting up that theme rather than bickering with GOP challengers.
ASSETS AND LIABILITIES
Romney was able to run a general-election campaign during 2011 because he had run for president before. His 2008 campaign raised his national profile, taught him the pitfalls of a Republican primary, and honed his debating skills. Boasting the strongest and best-financed organization in the 2012 field, Romney has consistently campaigned from a position of strength. He amassed $24 million in the past three months; the next-best Republican fundraiser, Ron Paul, raised $13 million. None of Romney’s rivals has posed a sustained threat so far, allowing him to focus on Obama. The only two competitors the Romney team ever worried about were Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are heading toward their last stand in South Carolina after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Perry stumbled badly in debates, and Romney and the other contenders savaged him as soft on immigration; a super PAC bankrolled by Romney’s allies depicted Gingrich as a Washington insider with “too much baggage” and helped topple him from his temporary front-runner’s perch.
This article appears in the January 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.