The only Republican who can beat Obama

The headlines Wednesday morning brought the stunning news that Newt Gingrich had surged to a 40-23 lead over Mitt Romney among likely GOP voters. But the more important story in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of 1,000 registered voters was what happened when Romney and Gingrich were pitted against Barack Obama. The president barely edged Romney 47-45, within the margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. Against Gingrich, Obama held a commanding 51-40 lead. Most importantly, half of all voters said they wouldn't vote for Gingrich.

Something else occurred last week -- Obama's bitterly partisan class warfare speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, which provided a grim preview of how he would govern if re-elected. His intensely divisive rhetoric pitting American against American confirms the view of many voters that our country simply cannot afford four more years of Obama's record-setting deficits, willy-nilly spending and soaring national debt. His re-election would mean continuing the policies that have brought economic stagnation and high unemployment, and putting federal bureaucrats between Americans and their doctors under Obamacare.

And so conservatives now have a crucial choice in the most important election since 1860. They would do well to recall the good advice of William F. Buckley Jr., who said that whenever two or more candidates claiming to be ideological soul mates are seeking endorsement, conservatives should support the one most likely to win. Buckley's admonition is doubly important, now that the 2012 Republican presidential race has become a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich. The Washington Examiner believes Romney can defeat Obama, but Gingrich cannot. And Romney the businessman is far better suited to the nation's highest office -- by temperament, experience, and cast of mind -- than Gingrich the consummate Washington insider. By fits and starts over the years, Romney has become the reliable conservative that America so badly needs at this crucial moment in her history.

Several weeks ago on this page, we urged conservatives to "think twice" before deciding to back Gingrich, saying that he "has been seen as an ultimate Washington insider, as exemplified in that $1.6 million he was paid to represent Fannie and Freddie, and his work with Nancy Pelosi on behalf of cap-and-trade."

The fact is, Gingrich is part of the problem, not part of the solution. He has tried mightily to shift attention away from his Washington insider status, saying, "I have never done lobbying of any kind." But that claim simply does not square with the facts, especially concerning Gingrich's lobbying Republicans in Congress for a new Medicare entitlement in 2003. As The Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney reported recently, "the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America confirmed that they paid Gingrich. Bloomberg News cited sources from leading drug companies AstraZeneca and Pfizer saying that those companies had also hired Gingrich." Gingrich's foundation, Center for Health Transformation, received an estimated $37 million from health industry interests seeking to be heard in Washington.

As for the $1.6 million he was paid by Freddie Mac for helping to persuade congressional Republicans to leave it and Fannie Mae alone, Gingrich's own words confirm the substance of his work. A 2007 interview with Gingrich posted on Freddie Mac's website clearly shows that he was throwing his political weight behind the two government-sponsored enterprises: "Certainly there is a lot of debate today about the housing GSEs, but I think it is telling that there is strong bipartisan support for maintaining the GSE model in housing. There is not much support for the idea of removing the GSE charters from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And I think it's clear why. The housing GSEs have made an important contribution to homeownership and the housing finance system." Within a year, of course, the housing bubble created by Fannie and Freddie burst, causing the Great Recession of 2008, and almost bringing the entire U.S. economy down with it.

Try as he might, Gingrich cannot change the fact that, as rival Ron Paul has pointed out in a TV spot, his reported net worth went from $10,000 when he entered Congress in 1978 to $7.5 million when he left Congress in 1998. And remember, it was only then that he began making millions by selling access to his vast networks of influential Washington contacts to clients like PhRMA and Freddie Mac. Combined with his rhetorical unpredictability and short-fuse temperament -- he is like an exploding cigar, waiting to be lit -- Gingrich's insider status makes him a symbol of congressional back-scratching and an easy target for Obama's political hit squads.

It is not unusual in politics for voters to project their hopes and dreams onto a fresh candidate. But Gingrich is hardly a blank slate. It should be remembered that he is the only Speaker ever to be reprimanded by the House of Representatives, and was ordered to pay $300,000 in penalties because of his ethical transgressions. It also needs to be remembered that he was engaging in an adulterous affair with a twentysomething aide (now his wife) even as he was preparing the impeachment of President Clinton for having an adulterous affair with a twentysomething intern. Republican voters seem to be engaging in willful amnesia about what is euphemistically called Gingrich's "baggage." They shouldn't: It would be used against him in ugly ways in a general election campaign.

We are not here to argue that Romney is the perfect conservative. There are understandable concerns about the transformation over time of his views on issues of particular concern to conservative Catholics and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. As a Massachusetts candidate for the U.S. Senate against Teddy Kennedy in 1994, Romney declared his support for abortion. But he says his experience in the embryonic stem cell debate a decade later convinced him, as he told Newsmax, that "the Roe v. Wade mentality had cheapened the respect for human life in this country" and he became a pro-life advocate. President Reagan traveled a strikingly similar path, having signed as California governor one of the nation's most liberal abortion laws in 1967, but by 1980 he had become a fervent pro-life supporter and remained so to his death in 2004.

There are also worries about Romney's positions in years past on taxes, gun control, TARP and campaign finance reform. On each of these, however, Romney's views have either become more closely aligned with those of the conservative mainstream (taxes and gun control), have become politically untenable in general (TARP), or have been rendered obsolete by court decisions (campaign finance reform). We are also reassured by Romney's practical experience in the private sector, which taught him the crucial importance of leading by consensus. In other words, he knows he must accommodate to the GOP mainstream, not the other way around.

In a race against Obama, we believe Romney will make a compelling case that he would be a strong and successful president. Here are three reasons why:

» First, when Romney sat down with this newspaper's editorial board, it became clear that he has thought long and carefully about what he would do as president and how he would do it from Day One. Just as Reagan lost in 1976, then spent the next four years methodically preparing to try again and for the day he would become president, Romney has spent the last four years thinking carefully about how he would be president.

Remember, Obama thought long and hard about getting elected president, but once there, he let Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and legions of industry lobbyists and campaign donors shape his economic stimulus program and the bulk of Obamacare. By contrast, Romney will on his first day in office send to Congress five major initiatives designed to boost job creation, and he will sign a series of executive orders designed to get government's boot off the economy's neck.

» Second, our economy is broken. Based on his long years of experience creating thousands of jobs here in the private sector, Romney knows how to fix the economy. As he says every day on the campaign trail, "government doesn't create jobs, the private sector does." To that end, he promises to cut individual and corporate taxes, reform the tax code to encourage growth and investment, and expand free trade. He pledges to slash unnecessary federal regulation and unleash America's vast energy resources to create jobs and free us from dependence on nations that are hostile to our country. He will, in short, follow in Reagan's footsteps to get America working again.

» Third, and perhaps most important, Romney will bring back to the Oval Office a faith in the ability of every individual to achieve his or her greatest hopes, and an unwavering pride in America and its limitless potential for greatness. He understands the American dream because his family has lived it. His father, George Romney, rose from humble roots to run a Detroit auto company and win election as governor of Michigan before running for the presidency. Mitt Romney made his own fortune in business, turned the floundering 2002 Winter Olympics into a financial success, and later that year won the governorship of Massachusetts. He has a capacious but disciplined intellect; he drives himself relentlessly but leads without using his whip hand; in line with Mormon practice, he gives 10 percent of his money to his church; he has been married to his high school sweetheart for 42 years and has five admirable children and 16 grandchildren.

Romney has the misfortune of being an earnest man running in an ironic time, and the leitmotif of the Republican race so far has been the search for the "anti-Romney." Party activists reached out to several men who declined to run, and then Republican voters lavished their affections on, successively, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich, all the while keeping Romney's poll numbers hovering around 25 percent. They have been searching for a candidate who shared their conservative principles, who had strength of character, and who, above all, could beat Barack Obama. We believe this candidate has been hiding in plain sight. Mitt Romney is not "too perfect," as some political analysts have argued, but he is perfect enough.