Most of the primary candidates are running on the same agenda, so the differences among their positions are fairly small. What differences exist tend to work in favor of Romney’s electability and against the others. Perry and Romney both have fairly sensible ideas about how to reform Social Security, for example. But Perry, unlike Romney, has expressed a degree of hostility to the popular program that will be easy for Democrats to exploit in the fall. The view of Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum that abortion should be banned even in the rare cases where pregnancies arise from rape or incest, while defensible (and in my view correct), would also be a serious political liability.
The candidates would probably have different strategies in the fall campaign. George W. Bush adopted “compassionate conservatism” in large part to ensure that the public did not form an impression of him as simply a conservative Christian from Texas, with all the negative associations that would accompany that impression. Disagreeing with Bush’s solution is one thing. Perry seems not to acknowledge the political problem at all: The premise of his campaign has been that the public wants a pure, uncompromising conservatism. Many conservatives believe, or want to believe, this premise, but the evidence for it is weak and it is at the very least an awfully risky premise for a nominee to adopt.
Then there’s the question of how the candidates would come across personally if nominated. This is admittedly subjective territory. The danger with Romney is that he will come across as (in order of increasing political worrisomeness) boring, phony, or uncaring. But he seems just as likely to appear intelligent, calm, and responsible. Gingrich runs a high risk of projecting an image of grandiosity, instability, and callousness, Santorum of arrogance and self-righteousness. Many people have gotten the impression that Perry is dumb. That may be unfair, as it was in the cases of Reagan and the second Bush. But it is an impression that Perry keeps reinforcing, both in debates and in remarks to reporters.
Some weaknesses are easier to address than others. Romney at least seems to understand that he needs to connect with middle-income voters, which is why he keeps emphasizing the middle class when he talks about taxes. Gingrich cannot, however, rearrange his marital history. Nor can any of these candidates change their basic personalities. Note Gingrich’s recent comparison of his failure to get on the Virginia primary ballot to Pearl Harbor, which no other candidate would have made. Gingrich also has a steeper climb in public opinion: Roughly half the country already has an unfavorable view of him, while closer to a third of the country feels that way about Romney.
Romney cannot do much to change the minds of anti-Mormon voters. But two things might work in his favor. The longer he spends in the spotlight, the lower his religion may go down the list of associations people have with him: He could become “moderate,” “the Republican nominee,” and “a rich businessman” before he is “the Mormon” in people’s minds. And the closer voters get to the election, the more they may focus on the important issues before the country, which do not include his theology.
Romney isn’t one of the great political talents of American history. (Neither is Obama, by the way, but that’s another article.) But he looks like a strong candidate. He might not win in November: I would rate him as a slight underdog, myself. But he still looks like the best bet to beat Obama.