Mitt Romney is reaching out to the conservative base – will it meet him halfway?
Speaking at a gathering of conservative activists hosted by the group Americans for Prosperity on Friday, the ex-Massachusetts governor detailed a proposal to partially privatize Medicare, a idea that echoes a plan from fiscal-conservative favorite Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Although Romney’s plan, unlike Ryan’s, would let future seniors enroll in the existing insurance program, it also would give them the option of receiving a stipend to buy private insurance (current Medicare recipients would not be affected).
The stipend is the most controversial part of Ryan’s budget, and Romney’s embrace of it, however partial, is significant. It carries political risk for the GOP candidate in a potential matchup with President Obama because of its unpopularity among seniors. But backing a key element of Ryan’s plan, combined with proposed alterations to Social Security that he also outlined Friday, is a big overture from Romney to fiscal conservatives, who have been wary of his moderate record. Even as he keeps one eye on the general election, he’s willing to offer bold conservative plans that can attract their support.
“The plan I propose to make government simpler, smaller, and smarter represents the biggest fundamental change to the federal government in modern history,” Romney said, speaking against a backdrop of American flags to an audience that filled a cavernous convention hall. “It is a change we must make if the words ‘full faith and credit of the United States’ are to mean anything at all.”
His overture couldn’t have been better timed: Dedicated fiscal conservatives might have derisively called Romney’s plan a half-measure a month ago. But faced with a dwindling list of conservative alternatives to Romney after yet another candidate, Herman Cain, appears poised to tumble, they might have to accept a candidate who only partially fulfills their wish list.
The bid by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has imploded. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has fallen behind even ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in some polls. Cain, who spoke just minutes after Romney at the event, is battling the emergence of stories about past allegations that he sexually harassed employees; although he has yet to slip far in the polls, his status as a potential Romney-slayer is now in serious doubt.
Each of those candidates, at least for a short time, consolidated much of the party’s conservative vote that has thus far eluded Romney. It’s why Romney, for his organizational muscle and aura of inevitability, hasn't cracked 25 percent support in most national polls. Now, he might be poised to tap into that base of support.
Romney worked hard to polish his fiscal-conservative bona fides during his speech, although he came across as less of an ideological warrior than a pragmatic businessman. He touted his budget-cutting tenure as governor of the Bay State and saving the Salt Lake City Olympics from financial disaster.
“When I get to White House, no one will have to teach me how to balance budgets,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for 35 years.”
Still, Friday’s event flashed warning signals for Romney. While he received polite applause, Cain, for all his troubles, was treated like a rock star. At the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO entrance to the stage, cued by the tea party themed song “I am America,” some in the crowd were so jubilant that they began to dance.
The contrast between their addresses was also striking: Romney offered a detailed, wonky plan to cut excess spending; Cain delivered a motivational speech.
Dennis Pittman, executive director of the Oakland County Republican Party in Michigan, said he liked Romney's speech, calling it "fact-based." But Pittman, who backed Romney in 2008, said that Cain was much more inspirational, which he said is necessary at a time of great economic pessimism.
He indicated that he's already planning to vote for Cain.
"When people pull that lever in the voting booth, they do it based on emotion instead of a study," he said. "We need to hire a leader, not a CPA."
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