After spending nearly $110 million on his first presidential campaign in 2008 and $78 million to date on his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney has finally gotten a return on the biggest investment of his life. The founding partner of Bain Capital and former Massachusetts governor will be the Republican Party’s nominee for president.
However, Romney’s nomination did not come without an ideological price.
He moved to his political right to fend off conservative challenges to his previously moderate-Republican positions. In some cases, such as immigration, he went so far right he even out-Tea Partied his conservative opponents with harsh calls for “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants.
The strategic shift helped in the primaries but as the general election campaign begins it is now a burden – and ammunition for the Obama campaign to use in portraying Romney as an extremist.
And, for all of his courting of conservatives, a significant number of them still do not trust him.
Two polls of Tea Party voters released after Santorum suspended his campaign showed strong support for Romney. CNN’s poll had 76 percent of Tea Party faithful with a favorable view of Romney; a Public Policy Polling survey had a similar result with 74 percent support among Tea Party supporters for Romney.
But in last Tuesday’s five GOP primary contests, all won by Romney, the anti-Romney vote remained substantial.
With no conservative candidate campaigning against him, and no political advertising challenging the Republican establishment’s rush of endorsements for Romney, large percentages of voters are still turning their back on the former Massachusetts governor.
In Connecticut, part of his New England backyard, Romney won easily with 67 percent of the vote but 32 percent of Republican voters made their point by supporting someone else.
In Rhode Island, the anti-Romney vote rose to 43 percent.
In Delaware, the resistance to Romney reached 44 percent of voters.
In New York, nearly half of primary voters, 48 percent, refused to get on the bandwagon.
In Pennsylvania it was a stunning 54 percent.
“You can’t only rely on people to be excited about you because they don’t like your opponent,” said Republican Congressman Raul Labrador, a freshman Tea Party favorite from Idaho.
He might have added that Romney can’t expect people to be excited about him even if he has no opponent.
“People have to be excited about you,” Labrador said. “They have to find a reason to campaign for you, to vote for you, to knock on doors for you.” He added that Romney needs to “get the base just as excited as he’ll get everybody else…over the next few months”
Many of Labrador’s conservative colleagues in Congress refused to endorse Romney during the primaries, choosing to stay neutral.
Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, for instance, quipped at a recent panel discussion “Let me just tell ya, if you are not sure about wanting to support Mitt Romney, whether you are liberal, whether you are very conservative, you ought to be excited because he’s been on your side at one time or another.”
The conservative firebrand later qualified his remarks: “So that I’m not totally misunderstood, I’m not as excited as I am desperate.”
This lack of excitement may have consequences for Romney in the general election if enough unenthusiastic Republicans stay home on Election Day thus depressing GOP voter turnout.
Apart from the prospect of defeating President Obama, rank-and-file conservatives have not yet found a reason for supporting Romney.
Perhaps his vice presidential pick will be that reason.
After all, when his advisors talk about resetting their candidate “like an Etch-a-Sketch” for the campaign – they are talking about shaking away the conservative positions he has taken and redrawing him as a moderate.
The other side of this picture is the Obama campaign’s strategy to portray Romney as too right-wing for moderate voters, especially women. Romney can counter with claims from the far-right that he is too moderate. But as a matter of political positioning, the GOP candidate finds himself caught between conservatives and moderates or the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place.’
His best bet to line up his conservative support while now seeking moderate votes is to attack President Obama. And he began sharpening that message last Tuesday night in his victory speech.
“Hold on a little longer,” he told the crowd. “A better America begins tonight.” He told them that Obama’s best is not America’s best and played on economic anxiety by asking people if they are more concerned about paying their mortgage today than they were four years ago.
"Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change. But after we came down to earth, after all the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for 3 1/2 years of President Obama?" Romney asked his energized crowd of supporters.
Taking a line from Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign against an incumbent president, Romney signaled that he plans to make the election about one issue and one issue only.
"It's still about the economy -- and we're not stupid," Romney said.
Here is the pointed message that Romney is betting on to get conservative and moderates to join hands and lift him to the White House.
Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst. He is the author of several books including "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It" and "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate."