Dave Keene, president of The American Conservative Union, has endorsed Mitt Romney for president. The endorsement is a pivotal moment in the 2008 campaign.
Keene, who endorsed Romney on Thursday, tells Newsmax that Romney is a “good conservative” and “the best of the bunch.”
A bulwark of the conservative movement, Keene has headed the ACU, the country’s oldest and largest conservative grass-roots lobbying group, since 1984. With 1 million members, the ACU runs the Conservative Political Action Committee’s (CPAC) annual conference in Washington and publishes an annual Rating of Congress — the gold standard for ideological assessments of members of Congress.
Among conservatives, no one is more highly respected than Keene. As second vice president of the National Rifle Association, he will automatically become president of the organization in three and a half years.
Keene’s endorsement is likely to galvanize fellow conservatives in Romney’s direction.
For some time, Keene had been discussing issues with Romney, but he had not issued an endorsement because he is friends with some of the other Republican candidates. Romney clinched the deal with him when they met in St. Petersburg for two hours the day before the Republican debate, Keene said.
“Romney spent most of Tuesday preparing for the debate; then at the end of the day, we spent a couple hours together; and then afterward I had dinner with his campaign manager Beth Meyers and Peter Flaherty who was his deputy chief of staff as governor, and Al Cardenas, who is one of my very closest friends,” Keene said.
Jeb Bush’s former finance chairman, Cardenas is on Keene’s board and chairs Romney’s National Hispanic Steering Committee.
“I had basically come to the conclusion that it is coming down to a race between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney,” Keene said. “And the reason I decided to break my neutrality, which I’ve maintained from the beginning, is that the Mike Huckabee surge in Iowa could easily derail the Romney momentum that he’s going to need to break through what Rudy Giuliani calls his firewall in Florida before the big primaries. And I therefore think it’s important that conservatives who think that Romney is the best of the bunch and are concerned about the impact of a Giuliani nomination on the conservative coalition and the general election, have to come out now because in essence a vote for Huckabee in Iowa is a vote for Rudy.”
Despite being friends with many of the candidates, Romney and Fred Thompson were the only two that he really considered supporting.
“As time went on, it began to appear, fairly clearly to me at least, that the Thompson campaign missed its window, wasn’t going to take off, and that left Mitt Romney,” Keene said.
Romney — Upfront Conservative
“Romney I think is a good conservative,” Keene continued. “He’s been very upfront with people, and the thing that sealed it for me was not just my concern about the outcome of the race, but I spent some time with him on Tuesday and . . . on the major issues of concern to me and I think to most conservatives, he pretty well satisfied me during that meeting. So I was very comfortable with telling him that they could announce my endorsement today.”
Keene said he speaks for himself and not The American Conservative Union, which does not endorse candidates.
“As I told the governor, I don’t pretend to speak for the conservative community,” Keene said. “Nor do I pretend to have an army of people that follow my lead. But a lot of conservatives have been sort of going through this same intellectual and emotional journey, if you will, to try to satisfy in their own minds whom they ought to be supporting. And at the end of that journey, I come up with Mitt Romney, and I want to share that thinking and that conclusion with other conservatives who may be in the midst of the same journey, for whatever value it might be.”
The Right Man for the Job
In an Oct. 29 story, Newsmax reported that Keene believed Romney was in the best position to win the Republican nomination. While Rudy Giuliani leads in the polls, Keene said then that most people have not begun to focus on the election.
Once they do, they will recognize how liberal Giuliani is on some social issues like abortion and gay rights, and Republicans overall will tilt against him. Then Romney’s strategy of focusing on key states like Iowa and New Hampshire could propel him to the nomination, Keene observed.
“Romney’s doing it the right way, in my view,” Keene said then over lunch at the Palm. “My view’s colored by history, and these other guys seem to be betting that history doesn’t matter, and I’m not sure that’s true. If you win the first contest, and they’re close enough to the second contest, you get an enormous boost. And the idea that the onrush of big primaries makes those early contests unimportant may be 180 degrees wrong.”
In an interview on Thursday, Keene said that while Giuliani has some strengths, “I really do believe that a Giuliani candidacy would split the conservative coalition in ways that would be very difficult to put together and could have long-lasting impact on the shape of the Republican Party.”
On the major issues, Romney is “right on,” Keene said. “The most important thing with these candidates is, when they give you their word in a campaign, that word is credible.
“I thought Romney put it very well when he was asked during the debate about his position on abortion, and he said he was wrong, and he changed his view, and anybody that wants somebody that’s always been right better look somewhere else.”
Keene said Romney could have pointed out that like Ronald Reagan, he was wrong, “because of course Ronald Reagan began as a pro-choice politician.”
The Right Change Is Good
What is important, Keene said, is not so much whether a candidate has changed his views.
“It’s a question of whether that change has been thought out, on the one hand, and is deeply felt on the other, and doesn’t go against his most basic values,” Keene said.
Giuliani said “I may be against you on guns and abortion and all these things, but the fact of the matter is I’ll appoint conservative judges,” Keene said. “Now if you in fact believe that, then he may have solved that problem in your mind if you’re a voter.
“I find it very difficult to believe that somebody who has taken a whole series of very strong positions on one side would rise to the presidency and then decide that his lasting legacy will be to appoint people who would steer society in exactly the opposite direction of where he’d spent his life trying to steer it. I have difficulty finding that credible.”
In contrast, Keene said he believes Romney’s promises.
“That is both because of the basic values that I know he has, and because I think that he’s a guy who, if he gives you his word and he said that he’s going to do something, you can pretty well count on it,” Keene said.
The Mormon Issue
Keene does not think Romney’s Mormon religion will be as big a factor in the race as the press coverage would suggest.
“My feeling is that he’ll lose some votes some places because he’s Mormon,” Keene said. But Keene said he believes most voters will not vote based reservations about religion.
“I suspect that when he gets to the general election and even in the primaries, the few votes he might lose are likely to be lost in places where they won’t make much difference,” Keene said. “So I don’t see that as a handicap. We have lots of successful Mormon politicians in both parties. It’s a little bit like in early 1960 when his opponents were claiming John F. Kennedy was going to be ordered about by the Pope. Well, that’s not the way people follow their religion. So I don’t see it as a problem.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.