Romney’s Courageous Convictions?

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, campaigns in Derry, New Hampshire.

In 2008 Mitt Romney ran a Gumby campaign, turning himself inside out trying to be everything to everybody. He bought in to every straw poll, competed in Iowa, signed most pledges–and lost. This time around, Romney seems intent on avoiding the same mistake. He’s not competing in Iowa any straw polls. He refused to take conservative bait and renounce the landmark health-care plan he pushed through as governor of Massachusetts. In last week’s debate, Romney intimated he might support a quicker withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, outraging GOP hawks. And over the weekend he wrote an op-ed explaining why he’s refusing to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s pro-life pledge, which earned rebukes from social-conservative rivals Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Clearly, Romney isn’t aiming for the Tea Party endorsement this time around.

The former Bain Capital CEO is still looking for support from all three legs of Ronald Reagan’s coalition – defense, fiscal and social conservatives. He’s just not going for each group monolithically. If it’s possible, Romney is attempting to run an even more nuanced campaign than in 2008. He’s also trying to shed the flip-flopper label by sticking to his positions this time, even when they anger extreme wings of the party.

On Afghanistan, Romney’s position aligns with the public’s. Polls show that war and spending fatigue has eroded support for the war as it enters its ninth year. Haley Barbour and Jon Huntsman have made similar noises. And Romney did quantify his withdrawal comments, noting that the strategy would depend on what the generals on the ground say: “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals that we can hand the country over,” he said in the CNN/WMUR debate. But that didn’t stop party hawks from taking Romney to task. “If you think the pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama’s left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, you’re going to meet a lot of headwinds,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on Meet the Press. “I wish that candidate Romney and all the others would sit down with General [David] Petraeus and understand how this counterinsurgency is working and succeeding,” said 2008 GOP nominee Sen. John McCain said on ABC’s This Week. “[T]o abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and radical Islamic extremists, I think, would be repeating the mistakes we made before.”

On abortion, Romney already has a rocky record: he twice ran for Massachusetts office as a pro-choice Republican. The easy way out would be to bend to social-conservative groups and sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s pledge. But, again, Romney is taking a more nuanced approach. “As much as I share the goals of the Susan B. Anthony List, its well-meaning pledge is overly broad and would have unintended consequences. That is why I could not sign it,” Romney wrote in the National Review. “It is one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood; it is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America. That is precisely what the pledge would demand and require of a president who signed it.” Though Tea Party darling Herman Cain also refused to sign it on similar grounds, the group was quick to jump on Romney, the perceived frontrunner. “Governor Romney refused to take the pledge and his explanation raises more questions than answers,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. “In good conscience, we cannot let this rest.”

And on health care, Romney has resisted pressure to renounce his plan, instead defending it in a speech largely panned by fiscal conservatives. Romney argues that he can be against Obama’s health care plan and for the one he instituted in Massachusetts, both of which carry individual mandates, because he is for states rights and against a federal mandate. Newt Gingrich has essentially the same position, but Romney was the one lacerated by rivals Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul–and by most Tea Party groups,  some of which vowed to defeat his candidacy.

Can a resolute Romney win the nomination in the era of the Tea Party? It remains to be seen. But if the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s that he’ll need the courage of his convictions to weather the storms and appeal to the center of the party. His strategy of appealing to shorter legs of the stool only works if the base is solid.