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I am disappointed that Mitt Romney didn't win the presidency last Tuesday, particularly because I saw what a reasonable governor he was in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, that reasonable governor was not the candidate running for president. While this latest battle for the White House may be complete, the war for the direction of the Republican Party remains very much at hand. As my party wrestles over its course, we should not ignore that Romney might have won had he campaigned with the centrist mindset with which he governed.
Far-right Republicans woke up Wednesday claiming that we tried to win with a moderate and it didn't work, so the answer is to be more conservative in the future. But exit poll data shows that notion is simply false. 3.5 million more self-identified conservatives voted for McCain/Palin in 2008 than voted for Bush/Cheney in 2004, and the former still lost. The percentage of voters who identified as conservatives has only grown in the last four election cycles -- from 29 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2004 and 2008, and 35 percent in 2012. Yet Romney still lost. Getting more conservatives is not the answer; getting the centrists is.
Further, imposing primary litmus tests on social issues risks alienating the majority of people who are not focused on those issues. In exit polls Tuesday, 60 percent of those polled listed the economy as the most important issue. Health care was a distant second cited by 17 percent of voters, followed by 15 percent noting the deficit and 5 percent reporting foreign policy as key to their vote. We need to focus on the economic issues about which most Americans care, not the social issues that divide. If the American people are worried about economy and the deficit, Republicans have great solutions. But they won't turn to Republicans if we haven't assured them in both word and deed that we are the party laser-focused on sound management and fiscal restraint.
The primary system has become a trap for candidates from both parties. Candidates move to the extremes to gain the nomination and then have to claw their way back to the center in the general election. Romney did just that, but by the time the grueling GOP primary was over, the journey back to the middle was too far to stretch. And in this YouTube age, there's no escaping the extreme statements you make in the primary amplified with an onslaught of advertising dollars.
As governor of a predominantly Democratic state, Romney worked across the aisle and governed well. He certainly didn't do that with a rigid, socially conservative mindset. As governor, Romney declared himself in the "legal but rare" camp when it came to abortions and allowed same-sex marriages to happen in Massachusetts under his watch. But in the GOP primary, he was vehemently pro-life, and opposed to marriage for gay couples. When he tried to appeal to the center again by noting this fall that he wouldn't pursue additional abortion laws, voters did not believe him.
Romney knows how to work across the aisle and find sensible solutions with which the majority of Americans could be comfortable -- he did it as governor of Massachusetts, and he could have done it as president. But he will not get that opportunity because the fringes of the Republican Party dragged him to the right on every conceivable social issue, leaving no room for reasonable dialogue when the general election was upon us.
Both parties are becoming more extreme, but I'm a Republican and I believe that Republicans have better solutions for the problems America faces. The GOP has to break the hold that fringes of the party have over the primary process so that our candidates can campaign and govern from the sensible center. If we fail to learn this lesson, the GOP may be driven to irrelevance before we get another chance.
Christine Todd Whitman is the former governor of New Jersey and author of "It's My Party Too." She wrote this for Politico.