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How Romney Can Win Swing Voters

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It's now clear that the Republican Party will nominate Mitt Romney when its delegates meet in Tampa, Florida in August. And, as a loyal Republican, I will almost certainly cast a ballot for him in November. But, like anyone challenging an incumbent, he has an uphill battle. Although it isn't his only challenge, the one that's took center stage in the very funny cold open of this past weeks' Saturday Night Live -- illustrates home what may be his greatest vulnerability: a perception that he'll pander to any interest group in order to win the election. Thus, Romney faces a difficult situation: he has to court Republican-leaning interest groups many of which still distrust him and, at the same time, convince swing voters that he isn't their pawn. To do this he may want to consider focusing on two issues with swing voter appeal in ways that don't seem likely to anger the Republican base: taxes and the environment.

Let's start with the some background about about the two parties and interest groups: Both, of course, are, in part, special interest with different makeups. Two major GOP factions--The Tea Party movement and evangelical Christians--don't have any sizeable national organizations to rally around but, instead, operate almost entirely on a local basis. On the other hand, many of the most important institutions that support the political Left--big labor unions, corporations that benefit from subsidiess, major environmental groups --for example, have national structures and clear chains of command. This isn't absolute, of course, the right-leaning NRA is at least as centralized as most big environmental groups on the Left, for example. Still, the lack of central structure means that a Republican tagged as a "special interest" tool has a lot of disadvantages over a Democrat, with the same label. A "Tea-Party" Republican running nationally could plausibly be associated with the bigots who show up once in awhile at Tea Party rallies. Support from the National Wildlife Federation, on the other hand, can't be used to convincingly connect a Democrat to the eco-terrorists at Earth First!.

So Romney has to do what Bill Clinton and, to a lesser extent, George W. Bush both did: triangulate his base and make it clear that he'll protect voters from the excesses of both the left and right. This doesn't mean that he should give up on key Republican issues. He can't turn his back on the unborn, come out against gun rights, or calling for evenly higher taxes. But, he can prove his swing voter appeal in two major ways.

First, Romney should make it clear that he sees a distinction between tax increases and eliminating tax expenditures. Raising marginal rates and eliminating tax expenditures that most people take advantage of like the mortgage interest deduction are, indeed, tax increases no matter how they are presented. But eliminating deductions for solar panels, certain state taxes, hybrid cars, specific educational expenses and the like aren't tax increases at all but, rather, ways of reducing the size and scope of government while making sure it has the revenue it needs to carry out vital functions. This would also put Romney as the true "balanced budget" candidate who is willing to look at the revenue side of the ledger as well as simply promising tax cuts the nation can't sustain.

Second, the Republican nominee should strive to present himself as an environmentalist. This doesn't mean endorsing Democratic Party schemes that seek to increase government control over the economy in the name of fighting environmental threats. It does, however, mean considering what the government can and should do to preserve humankind's common home. Efforts that preserve places of great scenic beauty, end government subsidies for environmental destruction (expanding Ronald Reagan's Coastal Barrier Resources Act deserves consideration), promote hunting on public lands (which will please gun rights groups), and improve enforcement of existing environmental laws could all play a major role in a Romney campaign and get parts of a key Democratic group to move over to the R column.

Both of these issues will, of course, involve crossing certain parts of the Republican coalition. There are some who believe that any increase in government revenue is a "tax increase" and others who--on the basis of religious or other views--actively want to promote environmental destruction. But these groups are tiny portions of the GOP and Romney can win without them. But he can't win without swing voters.