How Romney Finally Satisfied Conservatives: Winning

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Mitt Romney speaks during a victory rally in St Petersburg, Florida on October 5, 2012.

For two presidential campaigns, Mitt Romney has been battered by right-leaning commentators for his old crimes against conservatism. When he lurched to the right, they snickered; when he tacked to the middle, they said it was only a matter of time. First they called him a phony. Then, when Barack Obama opened a lead in the presidential race, they called him incompetent. Now, after Romney pummeled President Obama in their first debate, they are suddenly swooning. After six long years, Romney hushed his chorus of doubters with 90 good minutes. 

Take, for example, Peggy Noonan, a respected center-right columnist and former Reagan speechwriter. Noonan has been tough on Romney throughout the campaign, but two weeks ago she’d finally had it, anointing his candidacy “incompetent” and “a rolling calamity.” After Denver, she was singing hosannas to the “good and competent Mr. Romney,” a “smart adult [who] knew things both about America and about public policy.” Not a particularly high bar, but certainly a 180 from her previous columns.

How about RedState’s Erick Erickson, a card-carrying member of the “anybody but Romney” caucus (and contributor to TIME’s corporate cousin, CNN)? Erickson once argued Romney’s nomination would spell the death of conservatism and guarantee Obama’s re-election. Seriously: that was the headline. After Romney waxed Obama in Denver, Erickson wrote a post titled “Bam! Slam! Pow! Crash! Boom!”, which urged readers: “Mitt Romney showed he can do it. But the campaign needs your help now more than ever. Every penny helps.”

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The newfound conservative love affair with Mitt Romney is a tale of two CPACs. Back in February, when Romney was busy fending off Rick Santorum’s swipes from his right flank, Romney came to the big conservative confab in Washington to face his skeptics. He laid it on thick, describing himself as “severely conservative” and using the latter word approximately once per minute. The right had a chuckle at that; no true conservative would need to go to such lengths to convince the tribe he belonged.

The day after the debate, however, Romney returned to CPAC the conquering hero, making an impromptu appearance at a regional event in Denver. “He’d won their heads. Now he’s won their hearts,” gushed David Keene, the former head of the American Conservative Union.

Had these folks paid close attention during the debate, they might have noticed that Romney’s answers were not exactly “severely conservative.” Romney repeatedly said he didn’t intend to cut the tax burden for the wealthy, called regulation “essential,” praised aspects of Obama’s education policy and called the health-care plan he implemented in Massachusetts “a model for the nation, state by state.” One might expect conservatives to be discomfited by these relatively moderate stances. Instead, here’s USA Today on the fresh Romney fervor at Denver’s CPAC:

In the hours that followed Romney’s appearance here, an unusual sound could be heard inside the halls of the Crowne Plaza hotel: conservatives talking excitedly about Romney, retelling their favorite parts of the Wednesday night debate at Denver University.

Dr. Jill Vecchio, 53, a radiologist from Denver, who described herself as a very active Republican, she has had her doubts about Romney due to the health care law that he championed as the governor of Massachusetts. “I was a little lukewarm for a while and last night absolutely solidified my enthusiasm,” she said.

Cut these flip-floppers a little bit of slack. What does it matter if Mitt Romney is going to kill the quest for conservative purity? He has a shot at knocking off Obama, and that is this Republican Party’s paramount goal.