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Payne & Domke: Ever Changing, Romney Wears Different Political Suits07:09
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Mitt Romney (AP)
Mitt Romney (AP)

Conservative activists and Republican hopefuls gather Thursday for the three-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. Some see it as a test for potential 2012 presidential candidates.

There will be one notable no-show, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped out of the event, saying he has prior commitments to promote his new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness."

Romney's book tour has the look of a campaign swing. He has been in Iowa and South Carolina in the last week or so, and is in New Hampshire Wednesday and Boston Thursday.

WBUR's political analysts — Republican Todd Domke and Democrat Dan Payne — offer their thoughts on the former governor and potential presidential candidate.

Todd Domke (R): Mitt Romney is widely considered the front runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. That impression was reinforced by President Obama’s recent reference to Romney as the “current Republican nominee.” Why is Romney supposedly the front runner? Partly it reflects poll results (PDF) showing him with a slight lead over others. And partly it’s the assumption that Republicans usually nominate someone seen as the logical successor — the next senior statesman in line — as if there’s a monarchy at work. But wasn’t Mike Huckabee the last serious Republican challenging Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee?

I suspect that Mr. Obama’s reference to Romney as the Republican nominee was not a Freudian slip, but rather a deliberate attempt to set him up as the front runner. Mr. Obama is very word-conscious; he knows that Romney doesn’t want the front runner label more than two years before an election. It puts a lot of pressure on a candidate — voters expect you to offer specific solutions for the problems facing the country, and critics are eager to test you.

What’s most intriguing about Romney is his willingness to change not only issue positions, but his rhetoric and persona, to appeal to voters. Sure, Madonna and David Bowie were pioneers in reinventing themselves, but that was part of the act. There has never been a candidate for president so willing to change in substance and style, and yet be indignant when his authenticity is questioned. We’ve seen Romney as a mild-mannered moderate, outraged conservative, nonpartisan pragmatist. During the 2008 presidential primary he sounded like an evangelical in Iowa, a populist in New Hampshire, a United Auto Workers leader in Michigan… I half expected to see him become a Mouseketeer in Florida.

Based on the title of his current book, maybe next year he’ll have a new book called “A Few Apologies” and the first would be to conservatives for having enacted RomneyCare in Massachusetts because that led to ObamaCare. That is probably the biggest hurdle for Romney winning the GOP nomination in 2012.

There could be a great many GOP candidates vying for the nomination — candidates who ran in 2008 (Romney, Sarah Palin, Huckabee), but perhaps also Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, and Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin. It will be a long campaign. But I predict we’ll only see two or three more versions of Romney.

Dan Payne (D): Among national Republican voters looking toward the 2012 nomination, Romney, Huckabee and Palin are bunched together in a poll (PDF) — Romney gets 28 percent, Huckabee 24 percent, Palin 23 percent. Palin is Ms. Popularity, with 69 percent saying they like her, and the Republicans are a "Take Your Turn Party" and by that definition, it's Palin's turn because she was on McCain's ticket last time.

Romney has once again put on a new suit of political convenience. Now he’s a moderate, trying to stay away from conservative social issues, not campaigning in the South. The national press is onto Romney and they will not let him campaign as a moderate without saying he ran last time as a conservative and before that, against the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, as almost-a-liberal.

Early 2012 primaries could be very tough for Romney. In 2008, he spent millions in Iowa and lost to Huckabee. And last time in New Hampshire he lost to McCain when McCain resurrected himself. Romney didn’t get sidetracked until Michigan — one of the several states he was born in.

Romney has campaigned against his own Massachusetts health care plan because it makes it tougher for him to campaign against Mr. Obama. Many media outlets have said that the national plan looks a lot like the Massachusetts plan. Given his political flexibility, I suppose Romney will find a way to contort himself into a pretzel and attack the plan he helped create.

The Tea Party has the potential to become what the anti-war movement was for Democrats in the 1960s — the source of major cleavage within the party. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was destroyed by anti-war protesters, costing Democrats a chance at the presidency.

The Tea Partiers are angry at Republicans more than the Democrats and could become a disaffected movement that tears apart the GOP. Nationally the Tea Partiers are poorly organized and lack political skill. A few months ago, their gubernatorial candidate in Texas, Debra Medina, got plenty of publicity but got clobbered in the primary by the incumbent governor, Rick Perry.

This program aired on April 7, 2010.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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