Mitt Romney is panicked.
He has invested over $7 million to get his pro-family policy message out to the social conservatives who dominate the Iowa caucuses, and has held nearly 200 events there to solidify his support.
Then Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher with a sterling pro-life record, emerged. Rising to first in Iowa polls and second nationally, Mr. Huckabee threatened to become the alternative to Rudy Giuliani.
Based on the idea that he had lost his lead because of “the Mormon problem,” Mr. Romney devised The Speech to assuage religious-right voters that his religious values are basically the same as theirs. But his problem isn’t simply his religion.
Mr. Romney’s decline is rooted in something more basic than that.
In The Speech, one line stood out as an unintentional bit of irony. He declared: “Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.”
That sort of sums it up. Americans don’t like it one bit when candidates adopt positions (or entire platforms, for that matter) for political expediency.
After a year on the stump, Mr. Romney has yet to convince the conservative base that his transformation on a litany of issues including abortion, gay rights, guns, immigration, campaign finance reform, and supply side economics was anything more than a calculated maneuver to fill an open niche in the Republican primary race. The intensity with which he has argued contrary positions within such a short time period has been too much for many voters to accept.
His “credibility gap,” as one unaffiliated Republican analyst labeled it, remains huge.
Some conservative pundits express amazement that Mr. Huckabee — who lacks fiscal conservative credentials and foreign policy experience, and carries a full load of baggage from his days as Arkansas governor — could capture conservatives’ hearts when Fred Thompson and Mr. Romney couldn’t.
But they miss the point.
The base is seeking a person of conviction. If a candidate is indifferent (as Mr. Thompson has appeared to be over the course of his bid) or malleable on issues of conscience, he will gain neither their respect nor their support.
Mr. Huckabee may not agree with the base on college scholarships for children of illegal aliens, but he voices his views with apparent sincerity.
He, like John McCain – another politician whose strength lies in his ability to talk frankly about a consistent set of positions — contends that Guantanamo should be closed. It’s not necessarily a popular view with the base, but it’s far less cheesy than Mr. Romney’s pandering promise to “double” the facility.
One voter explained her preference for Mr. Huckabee over Mr. Romney in an AP report by saying, “It’s his humanness. He’s not like a robot.”
In other words, he occasionally says things that aren’t the result of political calculation.
Which makes perfect sense. Like Mr. Romney said, Americans hate a phony.