Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney may have swept the first two races in Iowa and New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean he’s on easy street.
cites five questions that Romney must answer to present a formidable challenge to President Barack Obama in November.
1. Can Romney address the Bain issue better than this?
Romney co-founded the private equity firm Bain Capital. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are blasting the former Massachusetts governor for layoffs that occurred at companies bought by Bain. Romney’s two competitors are essentially calling him a predator capitalist. Romney’s basic defense has been that criticizing Bain amounts to a criticism of American free enterprise. That may go over well among Republicans, given their devotion to free enterprise, but it probably won’t fly in the general election. Romney will remain vulnerable to criticism for his Bain background until he gives a thorough explanation of what he accomplished at the firm and why the charges against him are untrue. On the plus side for Romney: If he is able to quell the controversy during the primaries, that probably takes the issue away as a weapon for Obama.
2. If the economy keeps improving, does he still have a message?
The basis of Romney’s campaign so far is a promise of better economic management and a return to American exceptionalism. Romney is presenting himself as the candidate who can create jobs, and that’s what is resonating for voters. But the employment picture has brightened in recent months. To be sure, the December jobless rate of 8.5 percent won’t have voters doing cartwheels. No president has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 8 percent in more than 60 years. But at this point, the trend is Obama’s friend. And if it continues, that could pose a major problem for Romney. His response so far is to deny Obama credit for the recent job growth. That response should work well enough in the primaries, but how well it plays in the general election remains to be seen.
3. Will Republicans ever really, truly like Romney?
While Romney won the first two state races, he didn’t fire up voters. A Gallup poll found that he now leads among conservative voters for the title of “acceptable.” To stand up against Obama, Romney must do better than that. Some Republican strategists see a worrisome similarity between Romney and 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole. Both face —or faced — presidents the Republicans were desperate to unseat: Bill Clinton in 1996 and Obama now. But neither Republican had/has charisma. And the strategists are worried that Romney will meet the same fate as Dole. The turnout numbers for Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t offer any cause for GOP optimism. The best news for Romney may be that Obama’s base is apathetic too. But the president has an incumbency advantage that Romney doesn’t. Still, he might yet light sparks in the GOP with his own personality or an exciting vice presidential selection.
4. How will Romney cope when the press turns on him?
So far the press has largely portrayed Romney as disciplined, organized, and above the fray. But the glowing coverage won’t last. Talk radio star Rush Limbaugh says the mainstream press is building Romney up now only to tear him down later. That may be overstating it a bit, but the press will undoubtedly take off its kid gloves when it comes to Romney. During the primaries he has benefited from the outlandishness of his competitors, but that will be gone come general election time. His healthcare reform will again receive attention, as will his experience at Bain. Romney hasn’t reacted well to the minor criticism he’s received from the press so far. For Republicans’ sake, he needs to get better in a hurry.
5. How many Republicans will walk into fire for Romney?
Some powerhouse names have helped him so far — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Iowa, Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and now Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina. But many of the party’s young guns have stayed neutral in the race, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Elder statesmen Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, and Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi, also haven’t endorsed anyone yet. Assuming Romney wins the nomination, his fellow Republicans will undoubtedly unite to support him. But how hard will they work for his re-election? Are they willing to risk their reputations for Romney? Will Republican heavyweights be willing to go on TV to correct the mistakes that are made by any nominee? Will young officeholders, many of whom would like to run for president themselves four years from now, be willing to hit up their financial backers for Romney?
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