Mitt Romney in the Southland

By Friday night, Gov. Mitt Romney had spent most of his week in South Carolina and Georgia.  He had been in South Carolina for the Fox News Channel’s debate and Georgia for the GOP State Convention.  With improving poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire and many of the Bush Team from 2000 and 2004 on board, Mitt Romney is campaigning hard.

So late Friday afternoon at the Georgia GOP Convention, I sat down for a half hour with Gov. Romney.  We talked taxes where he said he wants a flatter and fairer system with a concentration on making the Bush tax cuts permanent, eliminating the death tax and straightening out the other ups and downs of the tax code.  He’s not a “Fairtaxer” or a Flat tax guy, but he believes in order in the system and that it is in need of major reform.  

Then we talked about terrorism and of all the candidates, Rudy Guiliani included, Romney communicated on Tuesday in the debate a better understanding of Islamic fundamentalism and who hates who and why than any candidate on the Republican side, or at least he can express it in terms that a lay person can understand.   Rudy Guiliani, of course understands the on the ground results and how to respond to terrorism and understands the threat but in the debates as well as in interviews has needed to spend a great deal of time clarifying his positions on social issues. 

Romney, in the debate and in my sit down with him put it this way, “There is a global jihadist effort. Violent, radical jihadists want to replace all the governments of the moderate Islamic states, replace them with a caliphate. And to do that, they also want to bring down the West, in particular us…And they’ve come together as Shi’a and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda with that intent. We have to recognize that what we’re doing in Iraq has enormous impact on what’s going to happen in this global struggle, and that’s why it’s important for us to understand that if we were to just walk out precipitously, we could conceivably see the border with Turkey be destabilized by virtue of the Kurdish effort, we could have the Iranians take over the Shi’a south, and perhaps most frightening, you could have al Qaeda play a dominant role among the Sunnis and then have a setting where you’d have something far worse than Afghanistan on their hands.”
It’s about communication.  The unspoken truth about terrorism and the Global War on Terror is the Bush Administration has failed to ask the American people to sacrifice for this effort and they have been inconsistent at best in laying out the threat. Senator John McCain and Mayor Rudy Guiliani have rightly been the frontrunners in the polls because they have been the frontrunners on this issue.  In the Fox News Debate and in interviews since then, Gov. Romney is aware that the momentum is changing for him on this issue.

Let’s face it, global terrorism is the most important issue to the next American election, even if Americans are weary of the war.  Without security of our borders and staying one step ahead of the terrorists, it doesn’t matter what other policy issues we argue over.  If we are dead, we can change policy, period.

As this conversation went on about social issues, religion and his CEO experience at the corporate level as well as running a very blue state; across the street, the Georgia GOP State Convention was going on.  Georgia is the only state that increased its Republican majority overall in the last election.  Rudy Guiliani is polling number one in Georgia and I got some insight into that at the convention.  Contrary to the Democrats diatribes about the South, southern Republicans are not Dixiecrats who left the Democrat party and went to the Republican Party in the Nixon years.  Those guys existed, but are mostly dead now.  The Rudy guys at this gathering of activists are transplants, carpetbaggers if you will, who grew up in Pennsylvania, New York or New Jersey or some other state above the Mason-Dixon Line who came to the South and stayed.  They like Rudy’s sensibilities and his style in New York. 

The biggest surprise of this convention is 40 sitting Republican elected officials, including the President Pro Tem of the Georgia Senate, Eric Johnson, endorsed Fred Thompson for President.  On top of that, Newt Gingrich got resounding applause in his skewering of the “so-called” compromise in the United States Senate over illegal immigration. There was a great deal of buzz around two guys who have not declared yet. 

Back in the room in the 1818 Club in Georgia, Romney is discussing his social views.  He makes sense; his changes are not like the awkward moves that Rudy made toward the Pro-Life movement and then solidly back to his Pro-Choice past.  Mitt Romney made the move to life issues the way most of us do, through learning about the issue. You can argue that regardless of what label Romney gives himself, he has lived his life as a social conservative.  He’s been faithful to his wife, his family and his faith and if he wins over the South and the rest of the country—that will be the reason.   

He is open about the religion issue and again, his life has been lead in a conservative Christian manner.  Interestingly enough, the Christian Right has not been the ones that question his religion.  It’s the guys on the left like Rev. Al Sharpton and the left wing blogs.  They want to throw up every myth about Gov. Romney’s Mormon faith.  When I asked the Governor why there is so much misconception about his faith, he said in good humor, “When you start out with the polygamy thing, it’s hard to shake.”  I don’t know if it’s as simple as that, but it’s close. 

Finally, we got to the issue of the day that has everybody talking, immigration reform.  Gov. Romney came out early with his concern about this deal in the United States Senate that appears to be dead in the water before the ink on the “bill” is dry. Romney gets the people on this.  We want immigration but not illegal immigration and even though he has a strong business background, he’s not afraid to take on business to make this right. 

Here’s some advice for Mitt Romney in Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest of the country.  Keep to the War on Terror message that you espoused on Tuesday night in Columbia, South Carolina.  Shout from the roof tops about your views on illegal immigration, demonstrate how you will make government smaller and make sure every Republican voter in America knows your business background and you could win the nomination. 

It is clear he’s ready for the fight but how do you fight candidates that are not even in the race yet?  Romney is doing it, one event at a time.