McCain veepstakes: Mitt Romney

At the end of the primary season, there was one Republican candidate left standing: John McCain, now the putative Republican presidential nominee.

And there was one candidate whom everyone was fairly sure the nominee would never invite to join him on the ticket: Mitt Romney.

Of all McCain’s rivals for the Republican nomination, none was more aggressive in attacking him than Romney, though the front runner beat back all of those attacks fairly easily, winning enough delegates to sew up the Republican nomination on March 5 with wins in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont — a full three months before Barack Obama was able to wrap up the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The bad blood between the senior senator from Arizona and the former governor of Massachusetts was so bad that it even prompted the headline “John McCain hates Mitt Romney” on on Feb. 5. It is widely believed that McCain despises Romney, and some have thought a McCain/Romney ticket impossible.

With that notorious antagonism in mind, it may seem surprising that Romney has now emerged as the leading candidate for vice-presidential nominee in the speculation veepstakes.

When asked, “Who will be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate?,” participants in the on-line ABC7 Futures Market put Romney in first place at $22.13 (as of August 1), with Tim Pawlenty a close second at $22.12.

At the end of July, Pawlenty trailed Romney at $16.02 to Romney’s $43.57. But while the two are now virtually tied in that little veepstakes speculation, just as at the end of last month, no one comes close to either Romney or Pawlenty; ‘other’ comes in a distant third at $9.36 and Bobby Jindal trails in fourth place at $8.81.

What accounts for the smart money now being put on Romney as the most likely nominee? First, Romney’s performance in the primary season: Romney did manage to win 272 pledged delegates, just behind Mike Huckabee’s 282, even if neither came even close to McCain’s 1,563.

While hardly barn-burning, Romney’s performance in the primary season compares favorably to that of libertarian Republican Ron Paul — who won a total of 29 delegates — not to mention Rudy Giuliani, who managed to win only one delegate. And compared with Fred Thompson — who proved a massive flop — Romney’s performance was positively impressive.

Second, Romney’s money. Romney’s $350 million fortune could prove a formidable asset to the cash-strapped McCain, whom Obama has out-fundraised by a long shot.

Third, while Romney is not entirely trusted by movement conservatives, he has greater credibility with them than McCain. In August 2007, the right-wing Club for Growth issued a presidential white paper on Romney, concluding that, “given his overall record as governor and the strong pro-growth positions he has taken on the campaign trail, we are reasonably optimistic that, as President, Mitt Romney would generally advocate a pro-growth agenda.”

Despite McCain’s record as a reliable right-wing Republican on all but a handful of issues, he is despised by the base of the Republican Party. You need only listen to right-wing radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Laura Ingraham to get a sense of the disdain that they have for the senator from Arizona. While he made no official endorsement, Limbaugh was actively promoting Romney as an alternative to McCain during the primary season.

Fourth, Romney’s age and looks. At 61, Romney is still relatively youthful looking and 11 years younger than McCain and he is — at least int he view of some — movie-star handsome.

If Obama were to choose the 53-year-old Evan Bayh, for example, there would be only an eight-year age difference between the vice-presidential nominees — considerably less than the 25-year-old difference between the presidential nominees.

Fifth, Romney has business experience that McCain lacks. Not only did Romney build up an enormous fortune through business acumen — unlike McCain or even George W. Bush, for that matter, who was an abject failure as a businessman — and can claim to have played a pivotal role in turning around the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

And last but not least, Romney has the executive experience as a governor that McCain lacks. Romney claims to have steered the state of Massachusetts through a huge fiscal crisis, though the true story is somewhat more complicated.

In any case, with the economy emerging as the leading issue in the 2008 presidential election, Romney’s business and economic management experience constitute to my mind perhaps the biggest asset that he woiuld bring to the ticket if McCain were to choose him as his running mate.

For all of these advantages, there is a huge downside to the choice of Romney as running mate, should McCain choose to invite him onto the ticket.

First, Romney’s Mormon faith. Many Americans are suspicious and distrustful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — and that includes not only the secular left, but also evangelical Protestants, many of whon regard Mormonism as a non-Christian cult. Whether the suspicion is well-founded or simply another prejudice, there is no doubt that Romney’s Mormonism would become an issue in the election should McCain make him his running mate.

Second, Romney’s experience as governor of Massachusetts is not an unmixed blessing for the Republican ticket, should he be added to it. Romney has been accused by many of having exaggerated his success as governor.

“Romney’s success in steering the state through the fiscal maelstrom was one of his key achievements, but in the retelling he and his aides often overstate the accomplishment and understate the side-effects: big fee increases and pressure on local property taxes,” the Boston Globe concluded in a full-length examination of his career. The same appears true of Romney’s boasting about his universal health care plan.

“The healthcare campaign became the signature accomplishment of Romney’s four years in office, showcasing the governor in all his complexity,” the Globe declared.

“It exhibited his strengths – a willingness to challenge convention by attacking an intractable problem in a creative way; but it also, critics say, revealed his shortcomings – taking too much credit for achievements and subordinating compromise for the sake of his own political prospects, the Boston daily added.

With the perspective of time, the plan that Romney pushed through the Massachusetts state legislature looks less like a solution to the national health care crisis than an expensive experiment that is a cautionary tale for the next president who wishes to reform the national health care system through federal legislation.

Third, and probably most important among the disadvantages to a choice of Romney as vice-presidential nominee, is the former governor’s image problem. Romney has developed an unfortunate reputation for a decided lack of firm commitment to any principle other than the advancement of his own political career.

In this regard, even his exceptionally well-coiffed hair contributes to the narrative of the former governor of Massachusetts as a big fake.

Romney’s abrupt reversal on LGBT rights is a case in point.

“For some voters it might be enough for me to simply match my opponent’s record [on gay rights],” Romney wrote the Log Cabin Republicans while campaigning to outst Ted Kennedy in 1994. “But I believe we can and must do better. If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern. My opponent cannot do this. I can and will.”

After having tried to run to the left of Ted Kennedy in 1994 and losing that Senate race, Romney won election as governor in 2002 by presenting himself to the people of Massachusetts as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. Romney won the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans by promising to pursue an aggressive gay rights agenda but then betrayed the LGBT community by attempting to block same-sex marriage in the state after he decided to run for president as a conservative Republican.

Romney’s betrayal of the community prompted outrage both in Massachusetts and throughout the country. Many accused him of hypocrisy, one website even claiming that Mitt Romney is gay.

That website, “dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy of the Republican Party’s homosexual identity crisis,” offers no evidence for the contention that Romney is a friend of Dorothy’s, its rather grand claims notwithstanding. Instead, the website simply invites visitors to e-mail the webmaster if they have had sex with Romney.

“Anyone out there who has had sex with Mitt Romney needs to speak up now and put an end to this hypocrisy,” the website insists. “Have you had sex with Mitt Romney? Let us know.”

Next to a photo of Romney — with the letters ‘G-A-Y’ superimposed on his face — are photos of Larry Craig, Mark Foley, and — somewhat incredibly — Fred Thompson.

The abrupt reversal on LGBT rights says more about Mitt Romney’s character than perhaps anything else in his record as governor. But it is not only members of the LGBT community who have serious doubts about Romney’s character; from all accounts, John McCain almost certainly shares those doubts himself.

And if McCain does pick him as his running mate, the character of the Republican vice-presidential nominee may well become a major issue in the 2008 election.

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