- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Election 2012 will be a nail-biter. The Senate majority is as likely to remain in Democratic hands as it is to fall into the Republicans’. And both candidates for president are viewed by voters as credible choices.

That second point is a big one. Barely a month ago, Mitt Romney was damaged goods. He was battered by his Republican opponents for being too rich, too callous and too moderate to be president. President Obama is still railing on him for being too rich and callous. But moderate? That’s become an asset.

Mr. Romney’s pragmatism was his albatross in the view of conservative GOP primary voters. Now it’s his badge of honor. It qualifies him to appeal not just to Republicans but to independents and fiscally conservative Democrats. He will need them all to win.

The middle is where most Americans are when it comes to politics, and that’s solidly where Mr. Romney is or, at least, aspires to be. His assertion that he was a true conservative was never accepted by true conservatives, and it’s not believed by anyone else. That’s a good thing from the perspective of those who want a Republican in the White House.

Mr. Romney is also talking more like a moderate. He has added improving education to his policy prescriptions, which has long been a way for a Republican to tack to the middle. Remember George W. Bush, the “education president”? That self-description went hand in glove with “compassionate conservatism,” the term he coined for his political philosophy. Both phrases signaled to voters that he wasn’t an ideologue from the right.

Mr. Romney is doing the same sort of thing. He’s talking up the three E’s of his agenda: employment, energy and education. The third E clearly was added for general election - read: middle-of-the-road - audiences.

He’s also already discussing tax increases. He prefers to call them loophole closers, but it’s the same thing. Reducing the interest deduction for mortgages on second homes and similar ideas raise revenue, which was off the table during the Republican primaries. But not anymore.

Mr. Romney risks alienating rank-and-file members of his own party if he takes this move to the middle too far. That’s why he continues to appeal to conservatives as well as independents. His commencement address to the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University was an effort to keep his own folks in line.

Indeed, the key to victory in November is not just attracting nonaligned voters but making sure the party faithful also turn out. Mr. Romney needs self-identified Republicans to show up at the polls and vote and not stay home watching the returns with their fingers crossed.

In other words, he can overdo moderation. But so far, he’s maintained a clever balance.

Poll after poll shows Mr. Romney even with Mr. Obama nationally. When voters are asked who would be better dealing with the economy, Mr. Romney comes out on top. That’s as good as it gets this year, when the economic recovery and joblessness are the key issues.

Mr. Romney in a remarkably short time has cemented himself as an acceptable alternative to Mr. Obama. He doesn’t just look like a president and act like a president, he is seen by a large number of people as someone who actually can be president. I would love to see a pollster ask this question: Can you imagine Mitt Romney as president? I bet the answer would be overwhelmingly yes.

He’s a solid, smart guy - serious, accomplished and deeply knowledgeable on all the topics that matter. He also has a terrific, warm and loving wife. His family looks like it walked off a Hallmark card.

It’s almost too much. But that may be what’s needed to overcome the overwhelming power and influence of incumbency.

The smart money in Washington is still on an Obama victory. Somehow, insiders say, he will manage to win a second term, just as most presidents in his position have done for decades.

But the experts also see the very real possibility that Mr. Romney could pull a surprise. He’s a legitimate alternative. Given the right circumstances and a bit of luck, he could be the next president of the United States. Get ready for a wild ride.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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