Late yesterday afternoon, Mitt Romney released a statement explicitly calling on Todd Akin to withdraw from Missouri’s Senate race.
“Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race,” the statement read.
Akin, of course, ignored this. A few hours later, the statutory deadline for a no-questions-asked candidate switch passed and Akin remained the Republican nominee. That doesn’t guarantee he’ll still be around in November; in a series of morning show interviews today, he indicated that he might still reconsider his candidacy. But for now, he’s defied his party’s soon-to-be presidential nominee, who also apparently enlisted his running mate in the effort to push Akin out.
In and of itself, this doesn’t say much about Romney’s clout within his party. After all, literally dozens of leading Republicans have publicly and privately pleaded with Akin to withdraw, urgings that have been backed by threats from the GOP’s national Senate campaign committee and its top outside money group to withhold critical financial support. If Akin is willing to thumb his nose at all of this, then it’s hardly surprising he’d do the same to Romney.
What’s noteworthy, though, is the timing of Romney’s withdrawal call, and the evolution of his public comments on Akin. Here we see further evidence of a phenomenon that has defined Romney’s candidacy and would define a Romney presidency: fear of and deference to conservative leaders.
When news of Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment broke Sunday, the Romney campaign’s initial response was this very tepid statement: "Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin's statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”
It was only the next day, when outrage began building and Republicans with more credibility with the party’s conservative base began rebuking Akin, that Romney made a more forceful statement to National Review, calling Akin’s words “insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong.” And it was only when just about everyone who’s anyone in the Republican Party had called on Akin to quit that Romney finally did the same late yesterday.
You could argue that this was mainly a case of a campaign trying to protect its candidate from undue embarrassment. By yesterday afternoon, the lack of a withdrawal call from Romney was becoming noticeable, since just about every other Republican had issued one. So he had little choice but to speak up. But before then, maybe it made sense for him to stay quiet, rather than risk looking weak by having Akin ignore his request.
The problem with this theory is that public opinion is so overwhelmingly against Akin and his remarks that there was a clear political incentive for Romney to speak up early – especially when you consider his low personal favorable score and the widespread perception that he lives in terror of offending his party’s base. Here was an opportunity to look like a leader. And if Akin had ignored him, well, that would have said more about him than Romney.
Instead, it looks like Romney chose to take the temperature of conservative leaders first, then adjusted his behavior accordingly. So we went from a weak initial statement Sunday night to a stronger rebuke Monday to a call for withdrawal Tuesday afternoon. This is classic Romney behavior. He’s well aware that conservatives are deeply suspicious of him, and capable of inflicting serious political damage on him if he alienates them. This was obviously true during the GOP primaries and remains true today, with heavy conservative turnout key to Romney’s November hopes. And it would be even more true if he’s elected president; the threat of a conservative activist/media-inspired revolt would hover over every critical Romney decision.
His response to the Akin drama shows that Romney is willing to stand up to a member of his own party – but only if just about everyone else in his party is already doing it.