A bridesmaid in 2008, he's laying the groundwork for a successful bid by raising money for GOP candidates, courting party activists, writing a book and getting plenty of face time on TV
Mitt Romney has the look of a man who's running for president. And if you're running for president, three years before your party's nominating convention, it's absolutely essential to say that it's way too early to think about running for president. So the former Massachusetts governor demurs when asked his intentions.
"It's way too early to make that consideration," Romney says. "Who knows what the future holds?"
Romney is sitting in a suite in Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel, where the next day he will address the annual Values Voter Summit, a gathering of conservative activists sponsored by the Family Research Council. In the suite, across from a credenza stacked with catered sandwiches, Romney's staff has set up a teleprompter -- monitors, those glass panels on high stands, the whole thing -- for him to practice the speech.
This stop in Washington is part of Romney's extensive work on behalf of Republican candidates around the country. On the day we spoke, he appeared at a fundraising breakfast for Virginia Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, and that evening attended a fundraiser for GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell. After the Values Voter Summit, he was off to New Jersey to help out Chris Christie, the Republican currently leading in the governor's race.
"What's on my horizon right now is trying to help pick up some seats in 2010, and of course some key races in 2009," Romney says.
Romney is doing all this work through his political action committee, the Free and Strong America PAC, which he formed in May 2008, not long after conceding to Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary race. The PAC has raised more than $2.3 million and given out about $1.8 million -- far more than any other Republican contender's PAC. In 2008 alone, Free and Strong America endorsed 83 candidates for the House and Senate; Romney attended 34 events for those candidates, in addition to 37 events for the McCain campaign.
Romney is also working on a book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," which will be out next March. He makes clear that he's writing every word himself. "I didn't have a writer who interviewed me twice and is now writing the book," he says. In addition, Romney appears on television to discuss issues of particular concern to him -- the stimulus, the takeovers of the auto companies, health care.
So if you list the things politicians do when they're in the early stages of a presidential run -- well, Romney qualifies.
Political action committee? Check.
Fundraising for GOP candidates? Check.
Courting party activists? Check.
Profile-raising book? Check.
TV appearances? Check.
Since he had hoped to be in the White House now, I ask what the first eight months of a Romney administration would have looked like, as opposed to what President Obama has done. "First of all, I would have followed through on his commitment to work on a bipartisan basis," Romney says. Next, Romney says his stimulus proposal -- he does believe we needed one -- would have been "far more carefully crafted to create jobs immediately." Romney would have put stimulus dollars into buying much-needed equipment for the U.S. military, as well as infrastructure projects, and he would also have made tax policy more business-friendly.
What else? "Cap and trade -- I wouldn't even touch that," Romney says. "It's the wrong course." But he would have made health care a major part of his presidential agenda.
"I like what we did in Massachusetts," Romney says, referring to the universal coverage program he and the Democratic state legislature crafted in 2006. "I think it works in Massachusetts." Pay close attention to that last part: Romney defends the system in his overwhelmingly Democratic home state, but he's careful to say that as president, he would give all the states greater flexibility to come up with their own fixes, which might be different from what exists in Massachusetts. The ultimate goal, he says, is "getting government less involved in the health care market."
If Romney runs, his health care record will likely be a big target for primary opponents. The Wall Street Journal editorial page hates it, and other critics -- and rivals -- point to its rising costs and potential for abuse. "You want to see what government-run health care looks like?" Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate, asked the crowd at the Values Voter Summit. "A couple of states have tried it, Tennessee and Massachusetts. It bankrupted both states."
"Not every feature of our plan was perfect," Romney answers in his own speech to the group, "but it does teach this important lesson: You can get everyone insured without breaking the bank and without a government option." The plan's costs, Romney says, have stayed within original projections.
At the end of the Values Voter gathering, when participants voted in a straw poll of possible 2012 contenders, Huckabee took first place, with 28.5 percent of the vote, while Romney took second, with 12.4 percent, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who also appeared in person, took third with 12.2 percent. Huckabee's win was no surprise; the former preacher has always been able to connect with the heavily evangelical crowd. The fact that Romney, after running hard and spending a reported $42 million of his own money in 2008, and then working assiduously this year, barely nipped Pawlenty, who is exploring a first-time run, was not something that will build confidence among Romney supporters. (By the way, Sarah Palin, who did not speak to the convention, was fourth, with 12 percent.)
It's hard to predict Romney's chances in a wide-open Republican primary race. The party has a habit of nominating the candidate who finished second the time before, but for the GOP in 2012 that will be a tricky question. By the end of the '08 primary season, Romney and Huckabee had virtually the same number of delegates, and neither man was the clear No. 2. And with his own books, speeches, PAC and TV show, Huckabee will likely be in the mix again.
Romney might benefit from buyer's remorse on the part of some Republican primary voters. McCain was respected but never well-liked among the Republican base, and when the economy collapsed in the months before the election, some in the GOP regretted not having Romney, the former chief executive officer of Bain Capital and a man who knows business, on the ticket. But it was too late to do anything about it.
There's also no way to know whether the Mormon factor will again come into play. In 2008, some evangelicals rejected Romney on the basis of his religion, even after he gave a much-publicized speech on the role of faith in his life and in politics. That might still be an issue next time around.
Then there's the age factor. On Inauguration Day 2013, Barack Obama will be barely into his 50s, while Romney will be nearly 66 years old, placing him in the historical upper reaches of presidential newcomers. But after a life of exercise, no alcohol, no tobacco, no caffeine and a happy marriage, Romney looks exceedingly fit and far younger than his years. None of us knows how long we have on this Earth, but if Mitt Romney keels over any time soon, it will be a major surprise.
Back in the suite at the Omni Shoreham, Romney dodges questions on 2012 but lights up when asked about his 2008 run. "It's hard work," he says, "but you get to know the American people in a way I never would have imagined." Running was an "expanding" experience, Romney says, introducing him to new friends all around the country.
"Let me tell you," Romney adds with a broad smile, "if you get the chance to run for president, do it."
Byron York can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His political column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com.