x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mitt Romney banking on his 'broad appeal' in Republican race

Presidential hopeful expected to win the New Hampshire primary, but rivals could capitalise on his Mormon background and past policy reversals.

Mitt Romney greets supporters after addressing a rally on Saturday in New Hampshire, which holds its Republican primaries today.
Mitt Romney greets supporters after addressing a rally on Saturday in New Hampshire, which holds its Republican primaries today.

WASHINGTON // He has, he says, the broad shoulders necessary to last a presidential campaign that is likely to turn increasingly negative.

With a career in venture capitalism, four years as governor of Massachusetts, a stint as chief executive of the 2002 Winter Olympics and a previous run for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney also has a résumé that provides his critics with plenty of ammunition.

Where he once favoured stricter gun-control laws, Mr Romney is now a member of the National Rifle Association. He has defended abortion rights in the past, but now argues that states ought to be given back the power to decide whether abortion should be legal. In 2002, he would not sign a no-tax increase pledge. He managed to do so, however, before running for president in 2008.

Thus, Mr Romney will need those shoulders and a thick skin if he is to secure the Republican Party's nomination to challenge Barack Obama for the US presidency in November.

His rivals for the nomination went after him during the second debate in two days in New Hampshire on Sunday - questioning his record as governor, his conservative credentials and his campaign strategy. Still the 64-year-old millionaire - whose fortune has been estimated at anywhere between US$190 million to $250 million (Dh697.9m to 918.3m) is expected to easily win the New Hampshire primary today, building on his narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses last week.

"The [Republican] field is still unsettled," said Lyle Muller, print editor of The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa's second-largest daily newspaper. Mr Romney's narrow victory in Iowa showed only that the party was still reluctant to get behind him, Mr Muller said, in spite of the perception that he is the candidate with the most "broad appeal" in the country at large.

On foreign policy, Mr Romney has sounded as belligerent as any Republican hawk.

He wants "comprehensive, withering sanctions" against Iran and has been fiercely critical of the Obama administration's "charm offensive" towards Tehran, which he says will not be enough to stop that country's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

He says he will continue the "war on terror" and has promised to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, open. When he ran for the nomination in 2008 he even promised a "double Guantanamo".

When Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives and one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, came under scrutiny for asserting that Palestinians were an "invented people", Mr Romney promised to ask "my friend Bibi" - Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister - whether such a position suited Israel.

His positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are influenced by Walid Pharis, his chief Middle East policy adviser. A former member of right-wing Christian militias during Lebanon's civil war, Mr Pharis has made a career in the US as an academic and, more recently, television commentator. He has been especially prolific on Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network, where he is fond of warning his audiences of the threat of radical Islam to the US. His most recent book is The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.

Mr Romney has been scathingly critical of the Obama administration's handling of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, saying Mr Obama "threw Israel under the bus by laying out his view of the policies he thought Israel should adopt in the peace process", particularly the suggestion that a return to the 1967 borders should form the basis of negotiations.

Among the Republican presidential candidates, only Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, has veered from the party's foreign-policy orthodoxy that holds Iran to be a mortal enemy and Israel an unwavering ally.

Mr Romney tried to curry favour with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, Mr Paul's base, as well the fiscal conservatives and with some success: he goes into today's race polling at 35 per cent, far ahead of his closet rival, Mr Paul, at 20.

Willard "Mitt" Romney - named after J Willard Marriot, the founder of the hotel and food services empire and a family friend - may also have trouble persuading voters that he is one of them.

He was born into a wealthy Detroit family and his father served as governor of Michigan.

Mitt Romney made himself wealthier with Bain Capital, a Boston-based financial consulting firm which he led for 15 years. His record there of profiting from taking over companies and turning them around - among them Domino's Pizza and Staples, an office supplies chain - is not in question.

His claim that in doing so he helped create thousands of jobs is. On Sunday, Mr Gingrich said that Bain Capital closed a steel mill in 2001 and put 750 people out of work. He called Mr Romney a "liar". Mr Gingrich also asked Mr Romney - who had protested that he was a businessman first and not a career politician - to drop the "pious baloney".

It is among the business elite of the Republican Party that Mr Romney's support is the strongest and with whom his claim to be the only candidate able to launch a serious challenge to Mr Obama resonates.

Coming in to New Hampshire, Mr Romney secured the endorsement of John McCain, the senior senator from Arizona who beat him for the nomination in 2008. He has also received the nominations of other members of the Republican establishment, including Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, whom many had hoped would run for president.

Mr Romney is a Mormon, whose members make up less than 2 per cent of the US population. What role Mr Romney's religion plays in the minds of Christian evangelicals, part of the Republican Party's base and especially strong in the South, is a crucial question.

Rick Santorum, who barely lost to Mr Romney in Iowa, and Mr Gingrich, poll well among evangelicals, and after New Hampshire the race goes to South Carolina on January 21 and Florida on January 31, where they are likely to be more competitive. Primaries are all about momentum. Win New Hampshire and Mr Romney will have plenty of that. But the question remains as to whether he broadens his appeal.

okarmi@thenational.ae