Can Romney win over women?

Mitt Romney greets supporters at an election night rally Tuesday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Romney wins appear to make him unbeatable; GOP must accept this
  • Stanley: Romney doesn't fit the conservative hero/cowboy model
  • He says Romney must woo women voters
  • Stanley: Romney should show the empathetic side that got him elected in Massachusetts

With his victories in Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, Mitt Romney now looks unbeatable. He has more than half the delegates necessary to clinch the nomination. Republicans are signaling boredom with the contest, and it's becoming harder and harder to justify Rick Santorum's ongoing insurgency.

Logic would push Santorum out of the race sometime in late April, following the big Northeast primaries. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, is running on ego and will probably keep his candidacy going until 2052. By that point, he'll be a head in a jar circling the Earth -- his voice booming out among the stars, "It is fundamentally inevitable that I'll be elected President someday..."

As the Republicans shift their attention from the primary to the general election, they need to do two things. First, they need to learn to love Mitt Romney -- and faking it won't do.

It will be hard. The Massachusetts moderate has struggled to appeal to conservatives and Tea Party people this season, who think his endorsement of their priorities is self-serving and insincere. More than that, conservatives tend to prefer presidential nominees who tap into the emotional narrative of the right -- war heroes like Bob Dole and John McCain, or self-made cowboys like Ronald Reagan or George W Bush. Romney's stilted, preppy style is too far from the prairie and too close to the boardroom.

Timothy Stanley

But the right is going to have to rally around Romney, put aside its objections and find reasons to fall in love -- and transmit that love to the base. Marco Rubio came up with a good formula when he endorsed Mitt last week on Fox: This guy is going to be the nominee, a longer primary will damage the party, and Romney does offer a compelling alternative to Obama because he has a record of creating jobs. If Rick Santorum or Sarah Palin would only say that, too, and say it like they mean it, Romney could go to the convention with a united party.

The second thing the GOP needs to do is let Mitt drift back to his comfort zone somewhere closer to the center-ground. A much discussed USA Today poll shows that Romney is headed for defeat because his party is unattractive to women. At the moment, Romney leads Obama among men by 48 to 47 percent; but he trails among women, 54 to 36 percent. The gender gap is wide enough to re-elect the president by a landslide of 51 to 42 percent.

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A lot of pundits have leapt on the idea that the recent debates over government-funded or mandated contraception have made the GOP brand toxic to women. But the USA Today poll indicates that the issue's impact is rather more qualified than that.

Both men and women rate "government policies on birth control" as the least important question in 2012, and 63 percent of them don't even know where Romney stands on it. About the same proportion dislikes Romney's position (24 percent) as much as they do Obama's (25 percent).

The real gender gap in the USA Today poll is that men think the deficit is the most important issue while women think it's health care. In short, independent women voters are more exercised about the GOP's opposition to "Obamacare" than they are its objection to free contraception.

So it's not good enough for Romney simply to go silent on social issues. Although a greater focus on the economy will surely help him, the polls suggest that he also needs some compelling alternative policies to the president on bread and butter issues. Demanding the repeal of Obamacare might appeal to many conservatives, but it's hardly a positive agenda. And if the Supreme Court strips the individual mandate out of the bill, then it will be a dead issue by November anyway. The president will look like a man who tried to reform the health care mess and was undermined by the judicial establishment.

Politically, Romney will look a season out of step and, in the eyes of many swing voters, a little bit heartless. Of course, that's ironic considering that he was behind "Romneycare" -- the Massachusetts health care program that some insist was the model for Obamacare. Romney may end up regretting his flip-flop away from it.

Between now and November, Romney needs to explore his feminine side. If Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus, he needs to court a few of those Venusians with a subtle shift in tone and agenda -- a gender realignment, if you will. That doesn't mean we need to see an entirely new Mitt Romney. But it wouldn't hurt to see some more of the old one -- the Mitt who was "empathetic" enough to win Massachusetts in 2003.

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