Senior aides in the campaigns chasing Romney likewise struggle to articulate a plausible scenario in which South Carolina’s big conservative vote will coalesce behind one of them, especially after Paul finished second in New Hampshire, denying a lift to any other candidate with a potentially higher ceiling. In 2008, McCain captured South Carolina and effectively sealed his nomination while attracting only 31 percent of self-identified Republicans and 26 percent of self-identified conservatives because the Right divided, primarily between Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. With Santorum, Perry, and Gingrich again splitting conservative votes, Romney could replicate that formula to equally devastating effect in a state that has usually favored establishment over insurgent candidates in GOP presidential primaries.
That prospect reflects the larger dilemma for Romney’s rivals: While many conservative voters may prefer an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, there’s little evidence that most of them are so determined to stop him that they will enlist in an-anybody-but-Romney crusade. In a Gallup survey this week, 59 percent of conservative Republicans described Romney as an acceptable nominee—more than picked any other candidate. “Consolidation against him is going to be easier said than done,” says a top adviser to one of Romney’s rivals.
Even if the Right can’t stop Romney, that doesn’t mean it has been powerless in this race. Like all his opponents, Romney this year is reading from a script largely crafted by conservatives. His agenda isn’t as revolutionary as Perry’s or Gingrich’s, but if Romney captures the nomination, he would emerge with a platform more right-leaning than any Republican nominee since at least Ronald Reagan in 1980, if not Barry Goldwater in 1964.
From the outset, the GOP nomination race has reversed the usual relationship between candidate and voter. The potential nominees have not so much sought to impose their own vision on the party as to demonstrate their reliability in implementing the vision that the party has already forged. “I think that they are adapting to the party rather than the other way around,” says Pete Wehner, a former top White House adviser to George W. Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “This is not a Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush moment where by force of personality, viewpoint, and ideology, those men reshaped their party. In this case, no one is reshaping the party; they are falling over themselves to prove who is the most committed to orthodoxy. The real center of gravity is the party, rather than the candidate.”
That’s evident in Romney’s commitment to the House Republican budget crafted by Ryan that squeezes domestic spending, converts Medicaid (and other antipoverty programs) into block grants, and transforms Medicare into a voucher, or premium-support, system. Romney pledges to balance the budget while limiting federal spending to a lean 20 percent of the economy; denounces any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; and promises to repeal President Obama’s health care reform law.
Even so, many conservative leaders still distrust Romney and will be quick to bristle at slights to their values if he’s the nominee. “They expect Romney to do this play for independents without doing anything to excite the base,” Erickson says.
Democrats expect, or at least hope, that hair-trigger suspicion will inhibit Romney from courting centrist voters for fear of stirring a conservative uprising, or even a serious third-party challenge, perhaps from the libertarian constituency blossoming around Ron Paul. Veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is advising a pro-Obama super PAC, predicts that Romney that “will be looking over his shoulder” through November.
Yet Romney, while moving right on issues like immigration during the primary, already has stopped short of accepting the Right’s full demands on several other fronts—for instance, he maintains an option for conventional Medicare in his premium-support plan and doesn’t propose further tax cuts for upper-income families. The fact that years of denunciation from the Right’s leading lights hasn’t crystallized into a more serious primary challenge could embolden Romney’s camp to take more risks in pursuit of swing voters if he captures the prize.
“A real movement would have found a horse,” one senior Romney adviser says. “I honestly can’t figure it out. I don’t know if the Washington people we all talk to don’t command the vast national movement that they say they do.” Even as his rivals muster for a last stand in South Carolina, the Right and Romney are both probing to determine how much each can push the other in a relationship that could prove more tumultuous and taxing than his race to the nomination itself.
This article appears in the Jan. 14, 2012, edition of National Journal.