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Mitt Romney still has to sell himself

On paper, Mitt Romney is the best chance Republicans have to capture the White House.

He’s a former governor (of a very blue state, Massachusetts) and a longtime businessman who speaks with ease about the causes and cures for economic ailments. He’s a keen debater who rarely makes mistakes, and he’s shown an inclination to not let political differences become so personal as to cloud his judgment. He can appeal to moderates.

So why isn’t Romney soaring in the polls? Why is he just holding steady as other candidates (Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) have risen and fallen? Currently, Republican primary voters are even flirting with Herman Cain.

Why don’t conservatives embrace Romney, whose background in both government and business makes him uniquely qualified to take on President Obama in an election when jobs and the economy will be center stage?

Conservatives, apparently, see Romney as squishy, in part because he’s changed his position on some key issues, including abortion, while he was governor of Massachusetts. And his sponsorship of a health-care mandate in Massachusetts — which many have called the forerunner of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law — leaves most conservatives cold.

In an interview Monday with the Review-Journal editorial board, Romney defended himself, saying voters of all stripes will come around to his side.

He says he hasn’t changed his positions from his presidential run in 2008, and stands by everything he wrote in his 2010 book "No Apology." And he deflects the question by saying it’s Obama who has to worry about his record.

"The real question is, has the president succeeded or failed on the economy, and can I do a better job?" Romney says. "This president has motivated conservatives better than any of us [candidates] could."

In the interview, Romney cites plenty of reasons conservatives should like him. Asked about the kind of Supreme Court justices he’d appoint, Romney cites Chief Justice John Roberts, and Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. He opposes most government intervention in the housing crisis until foreclosures hit bottom and surplus housing inventory is purchased. And he’s got a plan to balance the budget without raising taxes on anybody, while imposing a two-thirds supermajority requirement to raise any taxes in America.

"It’s important to me that we don’t balance the budget by raising taxes on the American people," Romney says.  

What’s not for a conservative to love?

Then again, Romney sounds nearly liberal when he criticizes Cain’s "9-9-9" plan, which includes a 9 percent national sales tax, because he says it will disproportionately impact the middle class. "The rich are doing fine, the poor have a safety net," Romney says. But middle-income families have been hardest hit in the Obama economy, and Romney pitches himself as their champion, notwithstanding the fact that his personal wealth puts him well out of middle class.

"Middle-income families are really struggling right now," he said.

Ditto for regulations: Romney says the government should have enough to protect life and safety, but not so much that the cost of doing business or buying goods rises too high. It’s a perfectly reasonable standard, but one that might give conservative skeptics pause.

Of all the candidates currently on the stage, Romney is best positioned to challenge Obama, who’s vulnerable on the economy. (Consumer confidence is low and unemployment is high, two numbers that spell potential trouble for any incumbent president’s re-election.) He can match Obama in debate ability, if not rhetorical prowess on the stump.

But thus far, Romney has failed to convince a key segment of Republican primary voters that he’s their man.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.

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