Tuesday, March 14, 2006

At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis over the weekend, Tennessee favorite son Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, met expectations by winning 37 percent of a presidential straw poll sponsored by Hotline, the Web-based political newsletter. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney easily exceeded expectations, achieving a solid second-place finish by winning 14 percent of vote, 4 percentage points above Virginia Sen. George Allen and write-in “candidate” George W. Bush. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who encouraged participants to vote for the president as a show of support for the commander in chief, received 5 percent of the vote.

In the crucially important “expectations game,” the Memphis straw poll is, of course, in no way comparable to the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Nevertheless, Mr. Romney’s showing does invite a closer examination of his views, particularly since his governorship has perforce precluded including him in this page’s previous analyses of the voting behavior of senators considering pursuing the 2008 presidential nomination.

In Memphis, Mr. Romney, who closed a $2 billion hole in the Massachusetts budget without raising taxes (fees, however, increased by $260 million; and corporate tax loopholes were eliminated, yielding another $255 million), derided Washington for “spending too much money.” Asserting that “pork is always dispiriting,” the governor elicited a wave of applause when he cogently observed that “pork being spent at a time of war is particularly dispiriting.” In its “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors: 2004,” the Cato Institute gave Mr. Romney an overall grade of C. Perhaps related to the fact that a Massachusetts governor faces a Democratic-dominated (roughly 85 percent) legislature, Mr. Romney received a spending grade of D from Cato.

On education matters, Mr. Romney embraced a successful ballot initiative that replaced the state’s bilingual program with English immersion. He demonstrated his school-choice bona fides by vetoing a bill that would have canceled funding for Massachusetts’ charter-school program.

Recently, Mr. Romney has strategically revised his abortion position from one that National Review appropriately characterized as “operationally pro-choice.” Running for governor in 2002, he said he “fully respect and will fully protect a woman’s right to choose.” While examining the issue of embryonic stem-cell research — he later vetoed a bill that would have significantly increased such research — Mr. Romney concluded that life begins at conception, making him “firmly pro-life” today. Mr. Romney does support stem-cell research on “surplus” embryos generated by in-vitro fertilization and likely to be discarded.

Feeling obligated to enforce the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing homosexual marriage, Mr. Romney, a devout Mormon, used his gubernatorial powers to prevent out-of-state same-sex couples from getting married in Massachusetts, testified in Washington in support of the Defense of Marriage Act and said he favors a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He opposes civil unions.

An enthusiastic supporter of legal immigration, Mr. Romney not only opposes illegal immigration, but he told National Review that he is also “against an amnesty and against anything that provides an incentive for people to come here illegally.”

The consensus among those present in Memphis was that Mr. Romney’s speech was very well received. This suggests that his second-place finish in the straw poll was no fluke. We look forward to hearing more from him.

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