Radical right threatens to blow Mitt Romney off course as Republicans gather in Tampa
Mitt Romney wants his party convention to attract moderates, but a show of strength by the Tea Party puts that hope at risk
Some of them believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Others want to force raped women who become pregnant to have their child. There are those who vilify Obama as a socialist and want to do away with most of the federal government. A fair few doubt the theory of evolution or hold that gays can be “cured”.
As Mitt Romney arrives at the Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida, where he will be nominated to run for president, he faces the difficult task of dealing with a party base that has become one of the most radical in recent American history.
Convulsed by the rise of the anti-government Tea Party and dominated by socially conservative Christians, the Republican party has continued to move right in recent years. That means the carefully laid plans for a Tampa convention aimed at introducing a voter-friendly version of Romney could easily be upset by the party’s more extreme elements.
“They don’t want anyone to look behind the curtain,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside. “You want the party base to turn up, give money and keep quiet. But it is hard to keep them quiet.” However, the curtain has already been lifted to some degree.
The week leading up to the convention was supposed to see a media rollout of Romney as a president-in-waiting. Instead it was dominated by an ugly row centred on a Republican Missouri Senate candidate, congressman Todd Akin, who used the phrase “legitimate rape” while talking about denying abortions to pregnant rape victims.
Romney called on him to leave the race and the Republican national committee chairman, Reince Priebus, asked him not to come to Tampa. But in a sign of how little control the party’s elite has over its base, Akin refused to step down and last week was spotted in Tampa meeting social conservative groups. At the same time it was revealed that Akin supporters had coughed up $100,000 for his campaign funds in two days.
But party bigwigs should perhaps not be surprised. Though Akin’s language was shocking, his views are not too different from the party’s official policy platform – in defiance of Romney. Indeed that extreme position on abortion is one historically shared by Paul Ryan, the outspoken Wisconsin conservative picked by Romney as his running mate.
There is a real consequence to such disputes over contentious social issues. Romney’s support among women, perhaps influenced by recent spats over abortion and reproductive rights, has plummeted. A survey last week showed Romney lagging by 13% with women voters in six key battleground states. Obama was beating Romney by 52% to 39% and about half of women voters said they were less likely to vote for Romney since he chose Ryan.
Nor is it just this issue that is likely to hamper Romney as he tries to pull off the complicated double act of using the Tampa convention to appeal to America’s middle ground, while also appeasing a conservative base that doesn’t trust him.
Gay marriage is guaranteed to fire up the base and Tampa will see some vocal opponents making a great deal of noise. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman and former Romney presidential rival, will be speaking at numerous events. They include a “Unity Rally 2012” that is going to be held at a church tomorrow night. Bachmann has spoken out vociferously on gay rights, once referring to homosexuality as “part of Satan”.
Appearing alongside Bachmann will be former pizza magnate Herman Cain, another former rival to Romney, who caused eyebrows to be raised when he briefly became the frontrunner in the bitter party nomination race, only to drop out over sexual harassment allegations. But he remains popular with many in the Tea Party, who admire his impassioned support for slashing government spending and instituting a controversial flat tax plan.
Other Tea Party darlings will include Ted Cruz, a Senate candidate in Texas who is being touted as a future party leader and has been given a high-profile speaking slot at the convention. Yet Cruz holds beliefs far outside the mainstream. He has warned that Islamic sharia law is an “enormous problem” in America, says elected officials should not march in gay pride parades and believes the UN is secretly trying to undermine America’s economy and sovereignty.
And then there is another Tea Party favourite who has been given a prominent role in Tampa: real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump.
Trump has told his fans to prepare for a surprise at Tampa, which is likely to be a video in which he sacks an Obama impersonator and deploys his famous “You’re fired!” catchphrase. But having Trump so visible is a political risk. He is one of the leading proponents of the “Birther” movement, which questions whether Obama was born in America. His presence is hardly designed to show an air of moderation or seriousness.
A final thorn in Romney’s side could be Texan congressman Ron Paul. Libertarian-leaning Paul is bowing out of national politics, but his followers are going to be vocal in Tampa, highlighting their beliefs in minimal government, an anti-war foreign policy and getting rid of the Federal Reserve. Though Paul won no individual states while he was running against Romney, his campaign later tried to exploit arcane party rules to send as many Paul-supporting delegates to the convention as possible. Fights over that “stealth strategy” have ended up in the courts and, in Louisiana, resulted in arrests and physical injuries.
Now thousands of Paul supporters are holding a three-day festival in Tampa in his honour. Paul himself will speak tomorrow night at a rally at the University of South Florida’s Sun Dome. Coverage is hardly likely to leave the impression that Romney heads a united or a moderate party.
One thing that could dampen things is Hurricane Isaac, which is barrelling towards Florida and may yet force some of the convention to be delayed or cancelled. “For Romney, that is probably a blessing in disguise,” said Bowler.