The last presidential campaign ended just seven months ago. Does any sensible American -- a category that excludes political junkies and newspaper columnists -- want to read a long magazine article speculating on the next one?
The Weekly Standard and National Review, two of the nation's most influential conservative magazines, clearly think the answer is yes. Each is running a cover story on the presidential prospects of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Terry Eastland's 6,000-word piece in the current Weekly Standard is introduced by a humorous cover illustration of a smiling Romney surrounded by donkeys. "Mitt Romney of Massachusetts," it says. "Can a Republican governor of a Democratic state become America's first Mormon president?" Eastland's conclusion: Quite possibly. "Romney would make an appealing candidate," he writes. "He just might be 'the right guy at the right time.' "
On the cover of the forthcoming National Review, meanwhile, a full-length photo of Romney -- every inch the confident executive -- is emblazoned "Matinee Mitt." Then: "Charming. Smart. Conservative. Now starring in Massachusetts, Governor Romney could be a premier attraction in the '08 GOP primaries."
Inside, John J. Miller's profile is of a savvy leader with many admirers on the right. For example, Miller quotes the president of the Pioneer Institute, a respected Boston think tank: "Without Romney, we would have been slapped with a lot of new taxes." And there's this from Heritage Foundation scholar Matthew Spalding, on Romney's role in the marriage debate: "In the worst possible circumstances, he confronted one of the toughest issues of our politics with considerable moral seriousness and political skill. That's the mark of a conservative statesman."
Heady stuff. Romney could hardly ask for a more flattering introduction to the hundreds of thousands of politically aware conservatives who read National Review and the Weekly Standard. As a Republican from the bluest of the blue states, he knows he'll have no shot at the 2008 nomination unless he can prove his ideological bona fides to his party's red-state core. To be certified as a worthy candidate by two of the right's most important journals of opinion -- and to have them do so this early in the political cycle -- is a godsend.
Romney would bring obvious assets to any presidential campaign: His dazzling business career. His rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics. His no-new-taxes resolve as governor. His easygoing demeanor. The legacy of his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney. Above all, perhaps -- at least to the conservative Christians who dominate the Republican base -- his strong opposition to same-sex marriage and the cloning of human embryos for research. On those two issues, Miller writes, "a good case can be made that Romney has fought harder for social conservatives than any other governor in America."
But Romney also has some obvious political liabilities.
One is his muddled stand on abortion. As a candidate in Massachusetts, he has held himself out as a supporter of Roe v. Wade who wants abortion kept "safe and legal." When I asked him in 2002 if he took a stand on any issue that put him at odds with most Republicans, he cited his support for abortion rights. But he has consistently made clear his personal antipathy to abortion, calling it "the wrong choice" and counseling women within his church not to get abortions. The predictable result is that Romney has always been distrusted by both prochoice *and* prolife activists. A reckless remark by Romney's political strategist, Michael Murphy -- "He's been a prolife Mormon faking it as prochoice friendly," National Review quotes him as saying -- has only compounded the problem in recent days.
A second problem is Romney's religion. Both Eastland and Miller cite a 1999 Gallup poll in which 17 percent of respondents said they would never vote for a Mormon candidate. Some of that is bigotry, some simply ignorance, akin to the bigotry and ignorance that would once have kept a Catholic like John Kerry or a Jew like Joseph Lieberman off a national ticket.
When Romney first ran for office in 1994 against US Senator Ted Kennedy, then-congressman Joe Kennedy -- the senator's nephew -- derided him as a member of a "white boys' club" whose church treated women and blacks as "second-class citizens." Kennedy later apologized, and said he didn't know the Mormon priesthood had been opened to blacks 16 years earlier. "But the attack may have had the desired effect," Eastland notes. "Ted Kennedy's poll numbers went up and stayed up."
If Romney runs for president, could he expect something similar? He acknowledges to Eastland that if all a voter knows of him is his religion, "I think a lot of people would say, 'I am not sure that that makes me feel real comfortable.' "
But Romney's family history convinces him that most voters are not that shallow. "Before anyone heard of my dad, the fact that he was a Mormon could have been a real big matter," he said. But the more voters came to know him, the less of an issue his religion became. " 'Oh, he's a Mormon?' Well, so what? It became such a footnote."
No one can say, of course, whether Romney's White House dream will come true or end up as a mere footnote itself. But he has certainly attracted the Great Mentioner's notice. With the first '08 primaries still 30 months away, that's not a bad start.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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