Two weeks from today, Florida Republicans have an opportunity to effectively end a disappointing presidential primary season and focus the nation on a pivotal general election. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the winner of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, is the candidate best prepared to make the Republicans' case that change is needed in the White House.
The Republican Party is experiencing an identity crisis as fiscally conservative, socially moderate voices are too often shouted down by the more extreme tea party activists and social conservatives. That explains much of the ambivalence about Romney as Republicans flirted with momentary flashes such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. The maneuvering before South Carolina's primary on Saturday offers another opportunity for candidates to appeal to the most conservative elements of the party. It will be up to Florida Republicans to steer a course that could attract independent voters seeking an alternative to President Barack Obama in November.
Romney has a breadth of experience and a record of pragmatism that makes him the most viable Republican candidate. He has considerable business experience from his 15 years as head of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that has ironically become a target for his Republican opponents who otherwise champion free enterprise. There should continue to be a healthy debate about Bain's record under Romney, including the successes and failures of companies it invested in. There also is plenty of room for argument and further examination of Bain's record of creating and eliminating jobs. But there is no disagreement that Bain also made handsome profits for its investors, and for better or worse, that private sector experience sets Romney apart from his opponents.
After running Bain, Romney salvaged the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. By all accounts, the Games were under an ethical cloud and in deep financial trouble when he became head of the organizing committee. Romney turned it around and became the face of those Olympics, raising tens of millions from new sponsors and the federal government, and turning what could have been an embarrassment into a civic success. That experience reflects Romney's ability to surround himself with talent, transform bureaucracies and build public support.
As Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007, Romney demonstrated he could work with Democrats and overcome financial challenges. It is true that he inherited a $3 billion deficit, which he helped close in part with modest increases in revenue. Romney did not increase the state income tax or the sales tax. But he did oversee increases in fees, closed loopholes in the corporate income tax and cut payments to local governments that triggered some local tax increases.
Romney's signature accomplishment as governor was a sweeping health care reform law that has resulted in nearly universal coverage in Massachusetts and is similar to the national reforms that Obama pushed through Congress. In a Republican primary, that accomplishment somehow becomes a negative. Romney's tortured efforts to downplay the state reforms and pledge to pull the plug on the federal law fuels the notion that he sacrifices principle for political convenience. So does his opposition to abortion rights, efforts to reduce carbon emissions and enlightened immigration reforms — all causes he once supported. In the best light, such flexibility offers some hope that a President Romney would revert to more measured policy initiatives than the ones candidate Romney has embraced in selling himself to conservative Republicans in the primary. We prefer Romney's public record to his political rhetoric.
Four years ago, Romney was not our choice for the Republican nomination for president. To his credit, he has become a more polished candidate who has performed well in debates and so far withstood withering attacks from within his own party. More attractive Republican alternatives, from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, sat this election out. And the remaining candidates are too burdened with old baggage (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich), too extreme (former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum), too unprepared (Texas Gov. Rick Perry) or too eccentric (Texas Rep. Ron Paul). Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who dropped out Monday and endorsed Romney, held promise but failed to mount a competitive campaign.
Romney has earned his status as the Republican front-runner and the candidate best prepared to engage Obama in a spirited campaign about the direction of the nation. It's time to move toward that debate, with the hope that voters can send a message that helps resolve some fundamental questions at the heart of Washington's gridlock. In the Florida Republican primary for president, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mitt Romney.