Indeed, when he looks at how he has drawn wide support in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, the former Bay State governor believes he is ready to compete in Pennsylvania. His message, he predicts, will resonate statewide; and in the Philadelphia suburbs, he has a not-so-secret weapon to help him on the trail: Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a popular figure among Republicans in the region.
“Governor Christie is an asset everywhere he goes, both with independents and Republicans, but also among a few Democrats,” Romney says. “His involvement in my campaign made a real difference in Illinois, and I expect it to do the same in upcoming primaries.” He’ll also be helped in the Keystone State by former governor Tom Ridge and a slew of supportive House members.
As he wages primary war, Romney is keeping an eye on another front, the Supreme Court, as it prepares to hear arguments about President Obama’s health-care law, which will complete its second year on the books today. “Clearly, if the Supreme Court strikes down Obamacare, there will be celebration in homes across America,” he says. “I believe the bill is unconstitutional, in addition to being wrongheaded. My own view is that if the Supreme Court does not [overturn the law], then we will be required to take that action if I’m president.”
Romney recognizes that health care will be a major issue in the fall campaign, and though some conservatives are wary of the health-care program he shepherded in Massachusetts, he asserts that his experiences will boost, not hurt, his chances in a general election. “I like being able to point out that I’m a person who understands health care and who understands the wisdom of the Tenth Amendment, allowing states to create or remove their own solutions, should they choose to do so, ” he says. Repealing and replacing Obamacare, he says, remains his top policy priority.
But he won’t rest his case on repeal. Should he win the nomination, Romney will offer voters a multifaceted health-care argument that includes challenging the administration on religious-liberty issues. The Obama administration, he says, by forcing religious institutions to provide health-care coverage of contraception, has been openly hostile to faith groups, and he pledges to stand with social-conservative leaders as they tangle with the president and his allies.
“There are many within this administration, and many within the liberal community, who have disdain for religious tolerance and seek to restrict it,” Romney says. “I think there are some who would prefer installing a secular society of sorts.” He calls the contraceptive mandate “one more example of an administration that’s not friendly to religious conscience and religious diversity.”
Romney also finds Obama increasingly vulnerable on energy. But it’s crucial, he says, for Republicans to discuss viable alternatives, such as increasing oil and natural-gas exploration or supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, instead of promising to lower gas prices to a specific level — a tactic favored by his fellow presidential contender Newt Gingrich. “I’m not going to put forward a proposal that has no basis in fact simply to pander to public opinion,” he says. His approach, he says, will push for drilling as well as an emphasis on eliminating burdensome regulatory policy.
But for now, the general election is months away. Santorum and Gingrich, by all reports, are committed to staying in the race. Romney tells me that he is fine with that, that he is comfortable with where things stand, that he is engaged but not worried. He believes that he will eventually win the nomination, should things continue to move as they have been. And he sees this long and drawn-out primary as a learning experience for all involved, a testing ground for the nominee.
At night, when he has a few quiet moments relaxing in his hotel room, Romney likes to read presidential biographies to take a break from the news chatter. At the moment, he’s reading two books — Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, about the assassination of President James Garfield, and Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough, about the young Theodore Roosevelt. “It’s about time I finally got around to reading that,” Romney says of the latter, which is a favorite among history junkies. “I always try to read two books at a time; I try to read one for fun and entertainment, for when just before I hit the bed, and the other is usually for education.”
Those books have come in handy this week as his campaign has been consumed by a kerfuffle over comments from his senior aide Eric Fehrnstrom. Fehrnstrom, in a CNN interview, referenced Etch A Sketch, a popular children’s toy, as an example of how the campaign could shake up its outlook should it win the nomination. Romney shrugs off the media buzz over the comments, including calls by several conservative pundits for him to fire his trusted adviser.
“Campaigns have different chapters, organizationally and fundraising-wise,” Romney says. “My positions are the same today as they were when I was governor. They’re the same as they were when I ran four years ago, and they’ll be the same in the general election and in my presidency.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.