Romney’s Edge

5 minute read
Joe Klein

By the time that libertarian congressman Ron Paul told a cheering crowd at the Iowa Republican straw poll that the 9/11 terrorist attacks might have been prevented if the passengers on the planes had been packing heat, I was beginning to wonder if the event–a goofy affair under the best of circumstances–had gone fatally exotic. Paul had one of the largest groups of supporters. So did Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who provided a massive air-conditioned tent that looked something like the Denver airport and featured nonstop evangelical preachers and a Christian rock band that strip-mined Stevie Wonder for songs like Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Jesus, I’m Yours. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo’s promise that he would actually deport 20 million illegal immigrants seemed to have toxic allure for many of the alleged 30,000 Republicans assembled. Congressman Duncan Hunter gave away a Ruger shotgun and seemed ready to declare war on China.

There has been a rowdy, adolescent substratum to the Party of Grownups ever since Ronald Reagan renovated the property, inviting America’s blue collars and rednecks to join the white-shoed country clubbers. And the party’s current despond seemed to enhance the rowdiness in Ames. It was hard to find a happy Republican. “I don’t like the three top guys,” Howard Taylor, a community-college teacher from Milo told me, referring to Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain. “They don’t have Midwestern values.” Nor did Taylor like George W. Bush so much anymore. “I think he tried to please some … people. He didn’t come up very strong on the social issues.” Taylor wasn’t thrilled with his fellow Republicans either. “My friends all say they want someone who is electable. But if we don’t stand on principle, what have we gained? I’m sick of voting for the lesser of two evils.”

Which raised an essential question about Republicans this year: Given the Bush debacle and the possibility of a Democratic victory in 2008, how crazy are they willing to get? Are they tempted to pull another Goldwater and lose spectacularly, on principle, as they did in 1964? If the straw poll is any test, the answer is no. The Paul forces turned out mostly to be nonvoting out-of-staters. Tancredo tanked. The Iowans, including Taylor, even chose the milder brand of Christian conservative, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (with 2,587 votes), over Brownback (2,191). Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, went easy on Jesus in his tent, performing Devil in a Blue Dress, among other secular classics, with his rock band, the Capitol Offense. (I thought his bass playing was pretty solid.)

They favored Romney, albeit grudgingly. “I voted for Romney because it’s going to take a lot of money to beat the liberals. They’ve got Hollywood and the unions,” said Steve Kruse of Ogden, who seemed unaware that Big Oil, agribusiness and a fair number of major auto dealers support his party of choice. Romney was able to purchase (at $35 per entrance ticket) the votes of Kruse and 4,515 others–and it was the prospect of the former Massachusetts Governor’s financial firepower that scared Giuliani, McCain and the spectral Fred Thompson away from the event. Romney now has to be considered a strong favorite for the Republican nomination. Giuliani may give him a tussle–and who knows about Thompson?–but in the end, Republicans will probably prefer a squeaky-clean Mormon with a totally focus-grouped pitch to a thrice-married pro-choice New Yorker who didn’t attend his son’s high school graduation. And another prediction: if nominated, Romney will be formidable in the general election.

Listen to him speak. Listen to what he has to say about Iraq. Actually, he has practically nothing to say about Iraq–which leaves him plenty of room to maneuver in the autumn of 2008. He also doesn’t have much to say to Republicans about his signal achievement as Governor: the nation’s first universal-health-insurance plan. But if he’s running against Hillary Clinton, Romney will be able to say, “You couldn’t get your Big Government plan passed. I got my private-enterprise plan passed through a Democratic legislature.” He’ll also be able to say his last name is neither Clinton nor Bush–no small advantage after the past 20 years.

Unlike Clinton, Romney has shown a tendency to get flustered under pressure–a question about why his five handsome sons were not serving in the war he supports left him boggled. But he is smart and pleasant and tells the most risqué joke that I’ve ever heard from a presidential candidate: “I asked Ann, my wife, ‘Did you ever in your wildest dreams believe I would be running for President?’ She told me, ‘You weren’t in my wildest dreams.'” He’s not in his party’s wildest dreams either, but he may well be its future.

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