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Joan Vennochi

What is the future for Mitt Romney?

By Joan Vennochi
September 11, 2008
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EVANGELICALS are boosting Sarah Palin. The same crowd helped derail Mitt Romney.

Romney failed to soar for many reasons, including religious bigotry.

Much of politics comes down to the personal. From that perspective, an anecdote involving a dog named Seamus who once took a long road trip in a cage atop the Romney family station wagon symbolizes Romney's larger political dilemma. On the campaign trail, Romney often came across as stiff and bloodless. Instead of the common man's touch, he offered the resume and solutions of a CEO. Even in casual garb, he had the vibe of Richard Nixon in wingtips on the beach, with better hair and tailoring and the technical benefits of 21st-century PowerPoint.

Beyond symbolism, Romney couldn't convince conservatives on the substance. They refused to buy the obvious flips and flops he took to conform to their social agenda. His status as ex-governor of Massachusetts didn't help his cause.

John McCain, one of Romney's chief primary opponents, had a similar problem with conservatives, until he chose Palin as his running mate. But during the primary season, McCain didn't have to deal with the one burden Romney could never put down, his Mormon religion.

The controversy over Romney's religion was so intense, he gave a speech that was widely compared with the one given by John F. Kennedy to explain his Catholicism. Romney's "Faith in America" address was widely praised.

But Mike Huckabee, the ex-governor of Arkansas and a onetime Southern Baptist preacher, won the Iowa caucus with help from evangelical Christians who don't consider Mormonism a Christian denomination. In ensuing contests, Huckabee won those same hearts and votes, to Romney's disadvantage and McCain's benefit.

On the day he ended his presidential campaign, Romney walked off the stage to ovations for a speech he gave to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Yet as soon as his name popped up on the list of possible McCain running mates, evangelicals, an important slice of the conservative constituency, made it clear that choice was unacceptable.

"Evangelicals warn against Romney on the ticket," the Washington Times reported on July 29.

"I will vote for McCain unless he does one thing. You know what that is? If he puts Romney on the ticket as veep," the Rev. Rob McCoy, a pastor who speaks at evangelical events across the country, told the newspaper. "It will alienate the entire evangelical community."

In a follow-up editorial, the Washington Times wrote, "much of the white evangelical opposition to Mr. Romney is not based on principle. It is simply old-fashioned bigotry. White evangelicals need to be reminded that this is America - a republic where neither religious convictions nor the lack thereof disqualifies a politician from office."

In the end, McCain chose Palin, the little-known governor of Alaska, whose gender and ultra-conservative ideology were part of McCain's overall political calculation. Palin's evangelical beliefs also stand to get the wider evangelical community behind the Republican ticket.

The entire Palin package is a gamble that is so far paying off for McCain.

Just on the demographics alone, McCain-Romney could never have matched the excitement kicked up by McCain-Palin. Romney's speech to the Republican National Convention also demonstrated the political tin ear that periodically hurt his presidential campaign. He railed against "liberal Washington," when Republicans controlled the White House for the past eight years and Congress until two years ago.

If Palin truly represents the GOP's future, as some political analysts predict, Romney is history.

If McCain wins in November, and Palin grows in the job of vice president, Romney's presidential campaign is stalled.

If McCain-Palin loses, and there is no Palin implosion to blame for a Republican defeat, McCain's running mate will get credit for breathing some life into his uninspiring White House run. That would enhance her political prospects and put Romney's on hold, along with those of other Republicans who aspire to the Oval Office.

If the Palin bubble bursts, exposing a weak and unprepared candidate, Romney has another shot at presidential politics. If religious bigotry is the ultimate tripping point, it is guaranteed to end the same way.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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