Romney's Conservative Counterattack

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers an address titled "Faith in America" at the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station,Texas, December 6, 2007.

For a teetotaler, Mitt Romney sure likes to talk about bar stools. Or, at least, three-legged ones that have become the mantra of his campaign's strategy in the face of Mike Huckabee's surging popularity. As the former Massachusetts governor put it during this week's Des Moines Register debate when asked which branch of conservatism is more important: "We're not going to get the White House unless we can pull together the coalition of conservatives and conservative thought that has made us successful as a party; that's social conservatives and foreign policy and defense conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Those three together form the three legs of the Republican stool that allowed Ronald Reagan to get elected."

The question was practically tailor-made for Romney, who has worked hard to emphasize his credentials on all three fronts. The electability argument is not one that's lost on Iowa voters. After the debate, Romney held a Christmas Party in Marion, Iowa, about 100 miles east of Des Moines. His speech to several hundred people there brought Rob Gettemy, 42, "to the edge of supporting him," Gettemy said.

"I'm both a social and an economic conservative and I feel like he right now appears to fit the bill on both sides of it," said Gettemy, who co-owns a small technology business. "I think Huckabee's probably the most socially conservative and [former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani's probably the strongest fiscal conservative, but neither have the other piece."

Romney needs voters like Gettemy, who is an Evangelical Christian. Evangelicals make up 40% of Iowa caucus-goers, and while it's clear that Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is their new favorite, Romney just needs to retain a portion of them, along with the majority of non-Evangelical voters, to win Iowa. Nearly two-thirds, or 62%, of Iowa Evangelicals support Huckabee, according to a Dec. 10 Rasmussen poll of 789 likely G.O.P. caucus-goers. That's up from 48% of Evangelicals in the same poll two weeks ago. Overall Huckabee leads Romney 39% to 23%. "Romney may very well lose the Evangelical vote, but he could still win because he's going to get more of a conservative Reaganesque budget-hawk constituency," said Ed Wallace, head of the non-partisan Iowa Taxpayers Association, who is not endorsing a candidate this cycle. "Romney's grass roots is exceptional so far. He has put in a lot of sweat equity — he was here in '05, that was a long time ago."

Douglas Gross, chairman of Romney's campaign in Iowa, points to Romney's relative stability in the polls as evidence that he already has a strong base with defense and fiscal conservatives in Iowa. "What has happened is you've had an underperformance by some of the candidates, particularly [former Tennessee Senator Fred] Thompson, Giuliani and [Arizona Senator John] McCain, and as they've gone down, Huckabee has picked up those numbers," Gross said. "But Governor Romney's support has really been quite stable."

That point is debatable. Romney's poll numbers have decreased from a high of 32% in September to 21% these days, where they seem to have hit a floor, according to poll averages done by Real Clear Politics.

Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said Romney has a good chance of splitting off some Evangelical voters because his platform has the necessary core beliefs: right to life, ban on gay marriage, school choice. "They're not a monolithic group," said Scheffler, who is also not endorsing a candidate this cycle. "They're basically bound together by very common positions on a variety of issues, but beyond that — putting those priorities in order of importance is not always a uniform of thought. Certainly other issues then come into play."

And neither candidate is viewed as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative on all fronts. Romney accuses Huckabee of being soft on immigration because as Arkansas governor he supported extending college scholarship to the children of illegal immigrants, and others have said his record shows he is open to raising taxes. Romney, though, has his own problems: many conservatives have labeled him a flip-flopper because he was once pro-choice, though he now says he was wrong on the issue and wouldn't uphold Roe v. Wade.

Romney is hardly abandoning Evangelical voters without a fight. This week alone he has David Keane, chairman of the American Conservative Union, coming in to make phone calls; James Bopp, a leading Right to Life lawyer, heading to Iowa to hold activist meetings; and Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice, is scheduled to fly in for meetings of his own on behalf of the campaign. That's not to mention the national address Romney gave last week on his faith to try and put to rest worries about Mormonism. Gettemy, who was once leery of Romney because of Mormonism — some Evangelicals consider the Church of Latter Day Saints to be a cult — said he liked the speech and ultimately decided, "I'm not voting for a pastor, I'm voting for a President and I believe [Romney] when he says he wouldn't try and convert people from the White House."