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Romney for President (1968 edition)

Mitt Romney has spoken about his father George, who was himself a candidate for the GOP nomination for President in 1968. The elder Romney was the original front runner, but over time his poll numbers weakened. The nomination and the Presidency ended up going to Richard Nixon.

George Romney had won two terms as Governor of Michigan, first in 1962 and again in 1966 by a wide margin which included over 30 percent of the African-American vote, an unprecedented accomplishment for a Michigan Republican. This victory thrust him to the forefront of national Republicans. Republican governors were determined not to let a Goldwater-sized loss recur and quickly settled on Romney as their favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in the 1968 U.S. presidential election. A Gallup Poll after the November elections showed Romney as favored among Republicans over Nixon by a margin of 39 percent to 31 percent, and a Harris Poll showed Romney besting President Johnson among all voters by 54 percent to 46 percent. Nixon considered Romney his chief opponent.

Romney's greatest weakness was a lack of foreign policy expertise and the lack of a clear position on the Vietnam War. Romney had difficulty as a speaker, often going onat length and too forthrightly on a topic and then later correcting himself. The perception grew that Romney was prone to gaffes. His campaign went through several reorganizations. By then, Nixon had already overtaken Romney in Gallup's Republican preference poll, a lead he would hold throughout the rest of the campaign. Romney's non-partisan style as governor proved to be a liability in a party nominating contest. Romney's national poll ratings continued to erode, and by May he had lost his edge over Johnson. Romney staged a three-week, 17-city tour of the nation's ghettos, seeking to engage militants and others in dialogue.

Questions were raised about Romney's eligibility to run for President. He was born in Mexico to parents who were American citizens and there was ambiguity about the meaning of the prhase "natural-born citizen" in the United States Constitution. Romney's membership in the Mormon church was scarcely mentioned at all during the campaign, but some critics pointed out the contrast between Romney's pro-civil rights stance and his church’s policy at the time of not allowing blacks to participate fully. Some historians believe that if Romney's campaign lasted longer and been more successful, his religion might have become a more prominent issue.

Several books were published about Romney, including a friendly campaign biography, an attack from a former staffer, and a collection of Romney's speeches.

On August 31, 1967, in a taped interview with talk show host Lou Gordon of WKBD-TV in Detroit, Romney stated: "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." He then shifted to opposing the war: "I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia." He called for "a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time." The "brainwashing" remark had been an offhand, unplanned remark that came at the end of a long, behind-schedule day of campaigning. On September 7, 1967 it made its way into prominence at The New York Times. Eight other governors who had been on the same 1965 trip as Romney said no such activity had taken place, with one of them, Philip H. Hoff of Vermont, saying Romney's remarks were "outrageous, kind of stinking ... Either he's a most naïve man or he lacks judgment." The topic of brainwashing quickly became newspaper editorial and television talk show fodder, with Romney bearing the brunt of the criticism. Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Johnson for the Democratic nomination, said that in Romney's case, "a light rinse would have been sufficient."

After the remark was aired, Romney's poll ratings nosedived, going from 11 percent behind Nixon to 26 percent behind. Romney nonetheless formally announced on November 18, 1967, at Detroit's Veterans Memorial Building, that he had "decided to fight for and win the Republican nomination and election to the Presidency of the United States." He spent the following months campaigning tirelessly, focusing on the New Hampshire primary. He returned to Vietnam in December 1967 and made speeches and proposals on the subject, one of which presaged Nixon's eventual policy of Vietnamization. For a while his poll numbers improved.

Two weeks before the March 12 primary, an internal poll showed Romney losing to Nixon by a six-to-one margin in New Hampshire. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller maintained his support for Romney but said he would be available for a draft. The statement made national headlines and embittered Romney. Seeing his cause was hopeless, Romney announced his withdrawal as a presidential candidate on February 28, 1968.At the time, Romney wrote his son Mitt, who was away in France on missionary work: "Your mother and I are not personally distressed. As a matter of fact, we are relieved. ... I aspired, and though I achieved not, I am satisfied."

Nixon went on to gain the nomination. At the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Romney refused to release his delegates to Nixon, something Nixon did not forget. Romney finished fifth, with only 50 votes on the roll call (44 of Michigan's 48, plus six from Utah). When some Republicans expressed dismay at Nixon's choice of Spiro Agnew as his running mate, Romney's name was placed into nomination for vice president by Mayor of New York John Lindsay and pushed by several delegations. Romney did not initiate the move, but nor did he make an effort to oppose it. Nixon actively fought against the move and Romney lost to Agnew 1,119–186. Romney worked for Nixon's eventually successful campaign in the fall.

Historian Theodore H. White wrote that during his campaign Romney gave "the impression of an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be President of the United States." Governor Jim Rhodes of Ohio analyzed the Romney campaign more colorfully, when he said, "watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football."


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