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Romney misses his 'Sister Souljah' moment

Now that Mitt Romney has corralled enough delegates to the Republican National Convention to assure his presidential nomination, political wisdom might suggest that he end his conspicuous romancing of his party's right wing and start reaching out to the rest of the electorate.

He was handed a golden opportunity to do so the other day at a major fundraising event also attended by his celebrity backer Donald Trump. The loquacious developer/television star not surprisingly repeated his suspicions that Barack Obama was not born on American soil and hence was not qualified to run for president in 2008.

Mr. Romney had already said that he believes President Obama was born in Hawaii, as an official state birth certificate has documented. But he declined, when confronted by reporters, to rebuff Mr. Trump, observing, "I don't agree with all the people who support me. ... But I need to get 50.1 percent or more." Instead, he thanked Mr. Trump "for twisting the arms that it takes to bring a fundraiser together."

This had the potential for what has come in politics to be known as "a Sister Souljah moment." The reference is to the way candidate Bill Clinton, in his 1992 presidential campaign, castigated a prominent African-American rapper who observed after riots in Los Angeles that "if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"

Mr. Clinton's attack was widely seen as a counterintuitive tactic, a willingness to court white voters by criticizing a favorite of black voters as he was fighting for the Democratic nomination against civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

Now, here was an ideal opportunity for Mr. Romney to seize a similar moment to chastise Mr. Trump for keeping afloat the so-called "birther" issue against Mr. Obama.

Instead, Mr. Romney fell back on the old "everyone's entitled to his own opinion" dodge, adding his acknowledgment that winning came first, no matter what the cost. The Obama camp immediately asked: "If Mitt Romney lacks the backbone to stand up to a charlatan like Donald Trump, because he's so concerned about lining his campaign's pockets, what does that say about the kind of president he would be?"

Mr. Romney's limp response was in contrast to Mr. Obama's own choice to seize a "Sister Souljah moment" presented to him in his 2008 presidential campaign. It came in incendiary remarks made by his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, including, "Not God bless America, God damn America." Mr. Obama said he was "outraged and saddened" by this and other Wright remarks and broke off with him, effectively neutralizing a damaging campaign issue.

When a recent plan to resurrect Mr. Obama's old ties to Mr. Wright was drawn up and submitted to the Romney campaign, it was wisely disavowed and disowned by Mr. Romney, obviously aware that it could backfire on him. But Mr. Romney's tepid response to Mr. Trump's reiterations that Obama's Hawaii birth certificate might not be "authentic" was a missed opportunity to disavow the publicity-hungry Mr. Trump himself.

Mr. Romney's own candid rationale for not cutting Mr. Trump loose seemed to be that he's willing to do whatever it takes to win the presidency. But it took him a long time to shake off a weak field of contenders because so many primary and caucus voters doubted his personal convictions. Throwing Mr. Trump over the side might have persuaded these doubters that he had convictions of his own.

From all recent polling, Mr. Romney has made good headway in consolidating support within the Republican Party, focused as it continues to be on making Mr. Obama a one-term president. Even women voters, who have shown a strong preference for the Democratic incumbent up to now, appear to be giving Mr. Romney a second look now that he has the GOP nomination in hand.

But he remains a cautious, low-risk candidate whose chances of success rest in large part on the perception that Mr. Obama is mired in economic doldrums. Despite some signs that recovery is inching forward, the Romney campaign seems willing continue to cast him as Mr. Fix-it and not give offense to anybody, including Donald Trump. Except, of course, to Barack Obama.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Sun. His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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