Rick Romney? Mitt Santorum? A recipe for a better GOP candidate

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum AP Photo

mitt romney and rick santorum
CBS/AP
Even the most optimistic booster of the GOP cannot deny that the 2012 Republican presidential candidates leave something to be desired. The frontrunner for the nomination, Mitt Romney, is seen as a "perfectly lubricated weathervane," in the memorable words of onetime rival Jon Huntsman, whose shifts on the issues have raised questions about whether he has a "core." His biggest challenger, Rick Santorum, just wasted a prime opportunity to take out Romney in his home state by getting bogged down in culture-war issues instead of focusing on the issue that overwhelmingly cite as their top concern, the economy.

To put it another way: Romney is too much of a politician. Santorum is not enough of one.

Obviously, the two rivals' styles are somewhat incompatible: If Romney had stuck to one set of beliefs throughout his career, there's no way he would have been able to become the governor of left-leaning Massachusetts and then a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Santorum, meanwhile, would have a harder time connecting with the highly religious and "very conservative" who broke for him in Michigan had he not unapologetically embraced social conservatism throughout his career.

But certainly, each could learn from the other. Santorum actually was willing to "take one for the team," as he put it, while in the Senate - something his rivals have pointed out in an effort to slow his momentum. He backed the "No Child Left Behind" law, appropriations measures that included measures he didn't support and Arlen Specter's Senate re-election bid. But he has also long shown an unwillingness to moderate his rhetoric on issues like same-sex marriage and other matters.

Before his loss in his 2006 Senate race, Santorum wrote a book in which he suggested that "radical feminists" undermined the family by convincing women "that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness." The book came two years after he referenced "man on dog" sex in a conversation about homosexuality, and not long before Santorum suggested contraception is "harmful to women." The positions galvanized Democrats against Santorum, helping lead to Santorum's crushing 18-point defeat.

Romney would never have allowed himself to be pigeonholed like that. And he never would have made the missteps Santorum made in the run-up to the Michigan primary - calling the president a "snob" for pushing for kids to attend college, attacking John F. Kennedy's call for a line between politics and religion and generally raising doubts about his viability in a general election. If Santorum had a little bit more of Romney's political acumen, he might well right now be poised to win the nomination.

And yes, Mitt Romney is a good politician. He's had plenty of missteps during this campaign - most notably, inadvertently reminds Americans of his wealth on a regular basis - but you don't go from moderate Massachusetts governor to GOP presidential frontrunner in an era dominated by conservatism without some serious political chops. But if he had a little more Santorum in him, he might be a strong frontrunner instead of a weak one. Romney has never been able to really connect with voters, whether in Massachusetts or nationally, because he has never shown a willingness to stick to his guns despite the political risk doing so entailed. No one seems quite sure what Mitt Romney believes, because he doesn't seem to take a positions grounded in what's in his heart.

When Romney was running for Massachusetts governor, he didn't say, "look, I know this is a liberal state, but I really do oppose abortion rights." Instead, he vowed to support abortion rights as governor. Now, he is adamant that he opposes abortion rights. But why should voters believe him? His shifting stance on abortion is just one piece of evidence for the argument that he is a political opportunist all too willing to shift with the political winds. Were he seen as willing to occasionally stand up for what he believes in - even when it is unpopular - he could win the respect of even those who disagree with him on the issue.

Perhaps a stronger nominee than either of the two would be a "Rick Romney" or a "Mitt Santorum" - a candidate who combines Romney's canny political instincts with Santorum's willingness to stand for what he believes is right. Someone willing to occasionally take political risks but to keep from going far enough that he alienates too many voters to win. It's not an easy trick to pull off, to be sure. But it's been done before. And there are plenty of Republicans who wish there was a candidate in the 2012 race who could do it again.

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