In the Arena

Why Don’t They Like Mitt?

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Mitt Romney isn’t having a very good week. He gave a testy interview to Fox News. Newt Gingrich is surging–and actually shows signs of uniting the conservative anti-Romney vote. He shows signs of becoming a Potemkin front-runner, whose support was based on name recognition–like Joe Lieberman in 2004 or, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton in 2008.

And so it seems time to ask the big question: Why Don’t They Like Him?–which is the subject of my cover story on Romney this week, now available online to TIME subscribers. 

Romney is a much better candidate than he was in 2008. He has focused on the issue where Barack Obama is most vulnerable–the economy. He has shown his mettle in the Republican debates. He seems more solid, and presidential, than any of his opponents, a slapstick lot, perhaps the most inept collection of presidential candidates in history.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

But he’s still spinning his wheels, and it’s getting worse–in the past month his support has dropped from the neighborhood of 25% nationally among Republicans, to 20% more or less, and he’s doing worse in all the early primary states, except New Hampshire, and even there Gingrich is gaining ground on him.

Romney has problems he can’t do anything about. He’s wealthy, a member of the Establishment in a party that is trending very strongly toward right-wing populism. He’s also a Mormon, which is rarely mentioned by Republicans, but is an obvious disadvantage among the party’s evangelical protestant base.

But the biggest problem he has is his persistent flip-floppery. This has been a problem, I believe, since the very beginning of his career. He has never really run as who he actually, well, probably is. He was probably far more conservative on social issues like abortion and gay marriage that he professed to be when he ran for U.S. Senator and then Governor in Massachusetts. Stories in both the New York Times and Washington Post this year have revealed that Romney took his role as a Mormon Bishop and President (the ultimate Mormon authority in the Boston area) very seriously–and that he tried to enforce the laws of his church on abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex firmly, although humanely. His flip back toward social conservatism when he decided to run for President was probably a move toward his natural predilections.

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And he is probably more moderate on policy issues than he’s been pretending to be as a Republican presidential candidate in the past two campaigns. He is a product of the empowerment Republicanism of the 1990s, as is Gingrich–an attempt to achieve progressive ends through conservative means. Hence, his support for an individual mandate universal health care system, which would use a private market to lower the cost of health insurance–an idea that was developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Hence, his support for a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions–an idea that George H.W. Bush included in the Clean Air Act of 1990, to (successfully) control Acid Rain. The radical turn of the Republican party has forced Romney to move right on those and a myriad of other issues.

The flips and flops have been justified at times–he is against ethanol subsidies this year–subtle at times, egregious at others. But the sum Romney’s reversals has created a problem of trust in a party of passion. It is entirely possible that he’ll still win the Republican nomination. (You can see Gingrich’s head filling with helium as his poll numbers rise.) It is even possible that he’ll beat Barack Obama in the general election. But presidential campaigns are about character, in the end–and Mitt Romney hasn’t been able to assuage the persistent doubt that he is all about expediency.