I joked the other day that once Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee decide not to run for president, the only thing standing between Mitt Romney and the GOP nomination will be his religion and his record as governor. I know a lot of people think the record will suffice to doom him—this Jon Chait’s Tim Pawlenty call—but I’m not so certain. I think it’s worth recalling that Mitt Romney won National Review’s endorsement in 2008 explicitly on the theory that he was equally conservative as Fred Thompson and more conservative than the others. Rush Limbaugh also endorsed him. Romney certainly hasn’t become less conservative in the ensuing time, and well-informed elites were prepared to accept him four years ago. Scott Brown’s support for RomneyCare didn’t stop him from becoming a conservative icon and hero of the Lost Cause struggle against the Affordable Care Act.
The known unknown here is whether key conservative media figures who supported Romney in the past would still like him today. If they do, they’ll help sell the right on his rationalizing away of his Commonwealth Care problem, and will likely have some efficacy. If they don’t and decide to (accurately) characterize his record as one of supporting something similar to the Affordable Care Act, then he’s clearly toast. But I think this is an open question. See also Brendan Nyhan defending Romney against what he sees as media smears.
The religion thing seems like a bigger deal to me. National Review is dominated by Catholics with intellectual/theological commitments to social conservatism. To someone like that, a Mormon is as good an ally as anyone else. But my suspicion is that this way of looking at the issue might not hold up for the non-liturgical Protestants who make up so much of the GOP primary vote. From an identity politics standpoint, Pawlenty is “one of us” and Romney isn’t. Evangelicals are badly underrepresented among conservative writers relative to their weight in the primaries, so I think it’s easy for this to get lost. But even though anti-Mormon sentiment will be a drag on Romney, it’s not obvious that any one person in particular can capitalize on it. So to me it really circles back to whether radio hosts will buy Romney as a conservative, which I think they might.