JIM LEHRER: Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney formally entered the 2012 presidential race today. He came with a nominal front-runner — front-runner status, as well as some lingering questions.
Judy Woodruff has our report.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The former Massachusetts governor kicked off the official start to his 2012 campaign in Stratham, New Hampshire, at a farm owned by a couple of his supporters.
Romney said his top priorities as president would be jobs and the economy.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: From my first day in office, my number-one job will be to see that America once again is number one in job creation.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: This marks Romney’s second run at the White House. He was competitive in 2008, winning 11 primaries, but dropped out that February.
With the economy expected to be the main focus of this election, Romney is trying to sell himself as the Republican best suited to challenge President Obama on the issue. In addition to his four years as governor, Romney was president of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, and spent more than a decade as an executive with a private investment and management consulting firm.
Romney said today that President Obama had failed America.
MITT ROMNEY: Turning around a crisis takes experience and bold action. And for millions of Americans, the economy is in crisis today. And, unless we change course, it will be in crisis for all of us tomorrow.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney’s front-runner status is bolstered by his fund-raising prowess. Last month, he raised more than $10 million in a single day. And he plans to add to that total with almost 30 fund-raising events this month.
Still, Romney is not without political liabilities. One of those most cited is the health care law he pushed in Massachusetts, a plan resembling the national overhaul signed by President Obama, which Romney has pledged to repeal.
MITT ROMNEY: I took on this problem and hammered out a solution that took a bad situation and made it better — not perfect, but it was a state solution to our state’s problem.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, during a stop today in Romney’s hometown of Boston, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stole some of his limelight, and said the health care mandate central to his plan was misguided.
SARAH PALIN, (R) former Alaska governor: In my opinion, any mandate coming from government is not — not a good thing. So, obviously — and I am not the only one to say so, but that there will be more of the explanations coming from former Gov. Romney on his support for government mandates.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney also continues to face questions about how genuine he is, questions that dogged him during his previous run.
Polls show Romney at the top of the field nationally, and with a wider margin in New Hampshire.
We take a look now at some new poll numbers, along with Romney’s position on the issues, with Andrew Kohut, he’s president of the Pew Research Center, and Ryan Lizza. He’s the Washington correspondent for “The New Yorker” magazine.
Gentlemen, good to have you both with us.
RYAN LIZZA, “The New Yorker”: Thank you.
ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Ryan, I’m going to begin with you.
Before we talk about his position on the economy, which is what he wants to talk about…
RYAN LIZZA: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: … you looked extensively at this health care plan that he pushed in Massachusetts. And you concluded that it has become his biggest liability.
Why is that? And how is he dealing with it?
RYAN LIZZA: Well, the number-one thing that Republicans seem to not like about President Obama, or at the top of the list anyway, is his health care plan, right?
And, essentially, the Obama — the architecture of the Obama plan is based on the architecture that Romney innovated and really invented in Massachusetts. And so, over the course of the last few years, there’s been a very lively debate on the right, some conservative intellectuals demanding that Obama renounce his support for this plan and specifically for the individual mandate, this mandate from the state governments in Massachusetts, the federal government in Obama’s plan, that every one of us carry health insurance.
And back when Obama — oh, excuse me — back when Romney proposed this plan, this was a pretty mainstream conservative idea, frankly. There was a sort of fringe of libertarian conservatives who opposed it. And over the course of 2006 to 2010, what has happened in the Republican Party is that the libertarians really won this debate over the mandate.
And it’s now become sort of the consensus among Republicans that the government shouldn’t force each individual to carry health insurance. And Romney has decided that, no, he’s not going to apologize for that policy. He’s going to defend it. But, at the same time, he’s saying that he would repeal Obama’s law and his state law is very different from Obama’s.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Which raises the question, how different or how similar are they?
RYAN LIZZA: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know this is hard to do in just a minute or so.
RYAN LIZZA: It’s hard. And, look, they are very complicated. The national one is certainly more complicated than the state law, but the architecture is the same.
The three-legged stool of health care that Romney invented, literally, in Massachusetts is the same as Obama’s. And that is subsidies for the poor to buy private health insurance, a market of health care exchange to help people find a place to buy health insurance, and a mandate to make sure that everyone is in the pool, so insurance premiums aren’t out of control. That three-legged stool was invented in Massachusetts, exported by a number of policy wonks in Massachusetts to Washington.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that is what a lot of conservatives now don’t like.
RYAN LIZZA: That is what a lot of them don’t like.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Andy Kohut, now, you have done this poll. You have looked specifically at what Republican voters think about the candidates.
What are they saying right now about Mitt Romney?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, Mitt Romney, among all voters, and Republicans as well, gets a very high, “I would consider voting for him,” higher than, especially among all voters, than any other Republican candidate.
He has three — well, there is the list, Romney at 75 percent, but next to him, Cain and Pawlenty, newcomers. And we could have Michele Bachmann on that list, and she would almost test as high as Romney.
But look at the bottom of the list. The bottom of the list are other well-known candidates, Palin, Gingrich and Paul. And we have 40 percent of Republicans saying there is no chance they are going to vote for them, not in a primary, but period.
So, Romney does relatively well for a well-known — a well-known candidate, but is open to potential challenges from these people who are pretty well-regarded by the relatively small percentages of people who know about them.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, you were asking them, is there a good or some chance that you would vote for these people for president?
ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What — can you tell at this point what it is that Republicans like about Mitt Romney or don’t like?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we can do it inferentially.
There are three things that people say they want in a candidate more so than five years ago, four years ago, what we tested. Governors are more popular. Businessmen are more popular. And people who have no Washington experience are no popular — are not popular.
All of those things apply to Mitt Romney. And that’s part of it, his biography and the kind of person he’s been. And he has broad appeal to independents, particularly to some of the more moderate independent — the people we call libertarians.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ryan Lizza, let’s pivot back now to his — to what he is saying about the issues.
RYAN LIZZA: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: As we said, he is saying that jobs and the economy are what he wants to focus on.
RYAN LIZZA: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What specifically is he saying he would do different? He’s criticizing the president.
RYAN LIZZA: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What meat is he putting on the bone?
RYAN LIZZA: Well, there were very few specifics in the announcement speech today. And that is sort of typical for these speeches.
The policy papers, the white papers come later. But one fact he did throw out there is that the government — that the federal spending should be 20 percent of GDP. Now, he hasn’t laid out specifically how he would get it down to that number.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is well below what it is today.
RYAN LIZZA: Well below what it is today.
And so we will see over the course of this campaign if he actually lays out a very specific plan to hit that target. Republicans in Congress who have tried to do that have really been hammered once they put the specifics out.
One thing to note is the difference between Romney’s 2007 announcement speech and this year is fascinating. 2007, the meat of the speech was about issues of concern to social conservatives, really had his eye on that Iowa caucus voter. This time, the meat of the speech was all about the economy. He’s just locked in and focused on the economy, and very much focused on the New Hampshire voter.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given how much or how little he’s saying about the specifics of the economy right now, Andy, do you get a sense of whether people like what they think he would do with the economy?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, he is and other Republican candidates will be the alternative to Barack Obama if the economy is not doing well.
And they will say we have got a different approach. And if people are unhappy, people — voters will opt for a different approach because Obama’s approach may not seem to be working.
There’s an important thing about Romney. And that is on the negative side. He doesn’t have as much relative appeal to a very important group in the Republican base these days. And that is the people who identify with the Tea Party.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.
ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, he’s near the top of the list, but he doesn’t get the boost among Tea Party people that some of the new candidates do and Sarah Palin does.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do they say? Can we say specifically what they’re saying…
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think that they’re more attracted to insurgent-type candidates. And Mitt Romney is many things. I don’t think anyone would describe him as an insurgent kind of candidate.
The other thing that we have to talk about with respect to Romney is his religion. We have 20 percent of all people saying they’re less likely to vote for a Mormon for president. And 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants, who are a very significant bloc of the Republican Party — we’re not there to considering those kinds of issues right now, but if you look at Romney and Huntsman, those are very significant.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Who also happens to be…
ANDREW KOHUT: That’s right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we haven’t heard the question of religion come up very much yet on the campaign trail yet, have we, Ryan?
RYAN LIZZA: No, not much at all. This was the issue in the 2007-2008, when he was running.
And I was just thinking. I wrote 5,000 words about him, never even mentioned that he was a Mormon. And it’s frankly not as much a part of the debate. And he’s been around once. People have gotten used to this. They learned about the Mormon religion. And, sometimes, it takes a couple of cycles for someone to break through a barrier. And maybe it won’t play as important a role this time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it just simply too early to say how he’s going to deal with how his Republican opponents are going to come after him on — on the claims on the economy, as well as on health care?
RYAN LIZZA: Well, I think we can already see from Pawlenty and Sarah Palin a characterological attack, not so much an ideological attack, but about character.
They are going to make the issue Mitt Romney’s consistency. They’re going to point to instances where he has changed his position on issues. And I think that is the reason that he was smart in sticking with defending his plan in Massachusetts, because it would have been deadly for him to come out and renounce his greatest achievement as governor. But that is the attack they are going for, character, not ideology.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there, but we will be looking at it a lot in the months to come.
Ryan Lizza, Andy Kohut, thank you both.
RYAN LIZZA: Thanks, Judy.