Romney’s Edge: Electability

Mitt Romney’s sudden surge in Florida reflects a basic fear voters have of nominating former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Despite his obvious brilliance, creative ideas and stimulating turns of phrase, they worry that he will come across as too strident to voters and will cost the Republican Party the presidency.

Women, in particular, worry that his personal baggage may impair his ability to defeat Barack Obama in November. Instead, both genders are coming to feel that it is better not to take a chance and to vote for Mitt Romney, the more electable of the two.

Voters are right in judging that Romney would stand a better chance to defeat Obama than Newt would. But they’re wrong in thinking that Newt couldn’t win. Either man — or even Rick Santorum, for that matter — could and would defeat Obama in November. The basic party shift (minus 8 for Dems and plus 3 for Republicans) pre-ordains Obama’s defeat. Voters should not hesitate to support the nominee they want for fear that Obama might win.

But Romney would clearly have the better shot at the presidency. Politicians and pundits in both parties divide between those who feel the best way to win is to rev up the base and those who want to maximize their appeal to swing voters. In the Clinton White House, I faced just such a battle with the liberals — such as Leon Panetta, George Stephanopoulos, and Harold Ickes — who insisted that ideological purity and fervor were the ways to come back after the Democratic defeat of 1994.

I never agreed. The swing voter is almost always the key to victory. Obama’s election in 2008 was not a product of ideological extremism. On the contrary, it was marked by a decided cover-up of ideology and a showcasing of a phony sense of moderation and bipartisanship, which were the last things on Obama’s mind.

Romney can get independent voters. His former embrace of abortion sends a message to swing voters that he is open to different ideas and not a hidebound right-wing social conservative. Similarly, his support for Romneycare in Massachusetts sends a message that he will be more tolerant of modest reforms in health care, such as preventing insurers from cancelling policies or raising premiums for sick people, or denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.

Clearly, Romney will, indeed, repeal Obamacare and will appoint pro-life judges. But his past moderation gives independent voters the feeling that he understands their points of view and will moderate his pursuit of both objectives.

That, of course, is precisely Newt’s point. And Newt is right. If a voter wants to be absolutely 100 percent sure that a new Republican president will appoint only Clarence Thomas clones to the Supreme Court, he or she would do better to vote for Gingrich or Santorum. But could either get elected? Many voters wonder.

The safe vote is for Romney. He has the best chance of beating Obama and of wiping out his policies. The ideologically pure vote is for Santorum. And the candidate who can best energize the base and wage an aggressive head-on campaign is Gingrich.

Take your pick. Despite the negatives, these are three very, very good men.

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