Weekly Standard: Romney Regains Frontrunner Status

Feb 29, 2012
Originally published on February 29, 2012 6:56 am

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

After months and months of campaigning, Mitt Romney is finally sounding like a conservative. It took the strong challenge by Rick Santorum in Romney's home state of Michigan to produce this transformation. But it worked as Romney overcame a double-digit Santorum lead to win yesterday's Michigan primary.

To fight off Santorum, Romney unveiled a supply-side tax plan to cut income tax rates 20 percent across the board. He also proposed reforming Medicare in a way similar to that of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the top Republican thinker on domestic policy.

And when Romney spoke at a rally after his Michigan victory, he downgraded the pitch that used to dominate his campaign appearances — his experience in business, with the 2002 winter Olympics, and as governor of Massachusetts. That was relegated to the tail end of his speech.

Instead he stressed a new slogan: "More jobs, less debt, smaller government." He said, if elected, he will save the country from the "deficits, debt, and decline" that President Obama has imposed on the country. The federal government, he added, will be "simpler, smaller, smarter."

And he ticked off a list of provisions in his tax reform scheme, including elimination of the estate, overseas corporate profits, and alternative minimum taxes. For a moment, Romney sounded almost wonkish.

The point here is that all this represents a change. Not that Romney didn't believe these things, but he sure didn't emphasize them. His strategy was to avoid staking out strong, specific conservative positions for fear that Obama would use them against him in the general election. Indeed, Obama is likely to do so.

But when confronted by a full-throated conservative like Santorum — or a "full spectrum conservative," as Santorum refers to himself — Romney had to give up the cautious approach. It wasn't capturing either the imagination or enough of the votes of the Republican grassroots. If he hadn't moved to the right in the past few weeks, he probably wouldn't have won Michigan. Maybe he should thank Santorum for the push.

As Romney said, "We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough. And that's what counts." The result: He's the frontrunner again for the GOP presidential nomination. Michigan was Santorum's best shot at bringing Romney down, but he fell short.

Romney faces a two-front war next week on Super Tuesday with its seven primaries and three caucuses. Santorum will concentrate on beating Romney in Ohio, a pivotal state, while Newt Gingrich is angling to win in Georgia and Tennessee. Romney can count on winning in Idaho, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia.

A win in Ohio would all but finish off Santorum, who has opened up a strong lead in polls. But dramatic victories in one week's contest tend to influence the next week's. So Romney may quickly close Santorum's lead in Ohio and may even get a boost against Gingrich in the Southern states.

Oh, yes, Romney also won the Arizona primary yesterday. It was a gimme for Romney because the other candidates — Santorum, Gingrich, Ron Paul — didn't take him on there. That they didn't is another sign of Romney's strength.

No doubt Romney's win in Michigan will be regarded as unimpressive, since it's his home state, he outspent Santorum by roughly 5-to-1, and he beat John McCain there by a larger margin in the 2008 primary. True, but back then Romney didn't face an organized effort by Democrats to intrude in the Republican primary and vote for Santorum.

Romney had a lot to lose in Michigan, perhaps even the nomination. Had he lost, the media, which doesn't like him anyway, would have had a field day, pillorying and making fun of him at the same time. But like he did in Florida after Gingrich had trounced him in South Carolina, Romney won when he had to in Michigan.

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