Bill Whalen

Romney, CPAC and Republican White Meat

He came, he saw, he conquered survived.

On the day before he faced the possibility of a fourth consecutive primary loss, Mitt Romney ventured to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. to make peace with movement conservatives.

It wasn’t exactly Daniel in the lion’s den – Romney charmed the same venue back in 2008, in his farewell speech as a presidential contender that year (more on that in a minute).

The former Massachusetts governor’s 2012 CPAC appearance was more along the lines of a suitor facing a roomful of skeptical in-laws – lots of talk of common ground, a promising future together, a marriage that can work.

As for the speech, Romney struck the right chords. He alleged an Obama Administration frontal assault on conservative values. He took snippets of his Massachusetts record to prove he was, in his words, “a severely conservative governor”(Romney mentioned the “c word” 25 times during his remarks). And he joined his campaign at the Founding Fathers’ hips (“We conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and our religion. We’re also proud to cling to our Constitution”) – music to the ears of strict constructionists.

It was decidedly more conservative than his CPAC appearance of a year ago, when Romney stuck to the relatively safe ground of Obama-bashing and American exceptionalism (Romney won CPAC’s presidential straw polls in 2007, 2008 and 2009; Ron Paul was last year’s winner).

But, for Romney, this year’s turn at CPAC wasn’t as passionate as his appearance back in 2008. That’s because, unlike four years, the candidate’s not a challenger and a conservative hunter but, instead, the frontrunner and the centrist hunted.

And his campaign? It’s a diet consisting of economic white meat, not socio-conservative red meat – an entrée that might have to change if Romney’s February fizzling turns into March malaise.

If you’re into politics and e-books, here are two suggestions for your reading list: Election 2012: The Battle Begins and The Right Fights Back.

These insiders’ accounts include background on the Romney campaign’s approach to the 2012 race: as they saw it, their candidate (like Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008) would never be loved by movement conservatives. However, absent a strong alternative and an overall weak field, Romney (with his deep financial resources and solid national organization) could will his way to the nomination.

Under this approach, Romney would be the economics candidate with an eye on November – the Republican’s business background versus the Democratic president’s big-government approach.

Romney stuck to the script, despite January and February’s mixed results. He purposely avoided social flaps, including this week’s controversies involving same-sex marriage and dictating birth-control mandates to religious institutions.

Before Tuesday’s setbacks, this approach worked.

But as Rick Santorum’s victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri showed, Romney’s centrist, general-election approach to the nomination battle left a void – for a conservative to revisit the culture wars.

Romney didn’t abandon the strategy at CPAC. He still talked about the economy. But, in something of a departure from his swing-state script, he did remind the activists that he has conservative chops. The next few weeks will tell if that re-orientation drifts beyond the Capitol Beltway.

If indeed Team Romney is deeply concerned about the recent losses and Santorum’s climb in the national polls: listen for a tweaking of the candidate’s message.

And that would be something akin to some of things Romney told the CPAC audience in that 2008 farewell address (here’s the video and transcript).

A few passages Romney could recycle, should he opt to return to the front lines of the culture war:

Americans love God, and those who don’t have faith typically believe in something greater than themself, a purpose-driven life, if you will. And we sacrifice as Americans everything we have, even our lives, for our families, for our freedoms and for our country. These values and beliefs of free American people are the source of the nation’s strength, and they always will be.

The threat to our culture comes from within. In the 1960s, there were welfare programs that created a culture of poverty in our country. Now, some people think we won that battle when we reformed welfare. But the liberals haven’t given up. At every turn, they tried to substitute government largess for individual responsibility . . . Dependency is death to initiative, risk-taking and opportunity. Dependency is culture killing. It’s a drug. We’ve got to fight it like the poison it is.

The attack on faith and religion is no less relentless. And tolerance for pornography, even celebration of it, and sexual promiscuity, combined with the twisted incentives of government welfare, have led to today’s grim realities: 68% of African- American kids born out of wedlock, 45% of Hispanic kids, 25% of white kids. How much harder it is for these kids to succeed in school and in life. A nation built on the principles of the founding fathers cannot long stand when its children are raised without fathers in the home.

The development of a child is enhanced by having a mother and a father. Such a family is the ideal for the future of the child and for the strength of the nation. I wonder how it is that unelected judges, like some in my state of Massachusetts, are so unaware of this reality, so oblivious to the millennia of recorded history.

Romney said all of that and more at CPAC in 2008. We know, from the most recent results, it’s on the minds of conservative activists. The question is: is Romney ready to say what the right is thinking, or does he continue to lope along as the “white meat” on the GOP menu?

For a candidate who’s choosy about what he eats – no cheese on his pizza; turkey, rice and broccoli for dinner – adding red meat to the diet might not be to his personal liking, but for Mitt Romney a political necessity.

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