Ahead of the likely celebratory night for Mitt Romney's supporters, I wrote a cautionary note this morning about why neutral observers shouldn't take Romney's success in the Republican primaries as a sign of they accept him as a moderate. Instead, Romney has gained his spot in the party by aligning himself with every conservative whim.
Still, conservatives don't fully trust Romney's sincerity. The former Massachusetts governor will have to watch his back at every turn in the general election; any misstep from conservative dogma will incite a round of handwringing among movement Republicans who would view it as confirmation of their worst fears about Romney. Unlike, say, Rick Santorum, who can adopt the occasional heterodox view without fear of being tarnished a RINO (Republican in Name Only), Romney must maintain a perfect track record to keep conservatives satisfied.
That predicament could very well cost him in the general election. His favorability among the broad electorate has disappeared, leaving the GOP headed into a general election in which most voters have a negative view of the presumed Republican nominee. And as former Prospect editor Michael Tomasky argues, at some point Romney will need to stand up to reactionary forces within his party's base, lest he drive independents further toward Democrats. Tomasky urges Romney to show a bit of backbone:
Take a stand. Choose something and take a stand that surprises people. Stand up to your base on one thing. Show that you have a spine. Because right now you are a jellyfish. People laugh at you. Your father told people where to get off constantly. For whatever psychological reason, you decided to be his opposite. Your choice. But if this race goes the way it looks as if it?s going to go, you will not only lose, but you will go down in history as a punch line. Your name will become a verb, and not a flattering one.
Tomasky thinks Romney's initial opposition to the Blunt amendment?a provision considered by the Senate last week which would have allowed any employer to refuse to cover any health procedure they found disagreeable?as a prime opportunity for Romney to have rebuked the talk radio crowd. Rather than holding strong, Romney rushed to correct his momentary divergence.
Unless the poll numbers are widely inaccurate for tonight's Super Tuesday races, Romney should soon dispatch with Santorum and Newt Gingrich, clearing the final hurdles before accepting the party's nomination (no, Ron Paul's devoted band of followers do not count as one such obstacle). But even when the nomination contest is over, folks like Rush Limbaugh or Erick Erickson will maintain their watchful stance, guarding against any move toward the center. Based on his conduct during the primares, it's hard to see Romney developing the spine to defy them anytime soon.