Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg is not someone often accused of “liberal bias” or a thumb-on-the-scales in favor of Democrats. So his latest column, illustrating Mitt Romney’s chronic credibility problem as a product of his supporters as well as his detractors, is especially interesting. Perhaps I like it because he’s making a point I tend to obsess about but that is rarely made in bland assessments of Romney: the candidate has been moving as rapidly to the right as he can even as his image within the GOP has moved left. That shows the rightward velocity of the GOP, particularly since 2008. But it is also means that GOP voters are constantly aware of Mitt’s endless repositioning efforts, including moderate Republicans who happily vote for him because they assume he’s lying to the hard-core conservatives who increasingly dominate their party:

For years, ever since he started running against Sen. John McCain for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Romney has tried to position himself to the right. In fact, four years ago, he succeeded in positioning himself as one of two conservative alternatives (the other being former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee) to the Arizona Senator.

The exit poll from the Florida GOP primary on Jan. 29, 2008, when McCain narrowly beat Romney, 36 percent to 31 percent, and Huckabee came in a weak fourth, showed Romney rallying Republican conservatives who could not accept McCain…..

This cycle, Romney has run right again, to establish his conservative credentials, but he has not been successful. Instead, each and every week, he has performed best among the same voters who chose McCain over him four years ago — and he has done least well among those demographic groups that supported him in 2008.

Romney’s great problem in the GOP race, as pretty much everyone has already observed, is that conservatives don’t really believe that he is one of them….

What’s interesting about Romney and his supporters is that, despite his conservative rhetoric, moderates and country club conservatives continue to support his candidacy.

Think about it. Romney, who stresses his opposition to abortion, talks tough on immigration and rules out a tax increase even to help cut the deficit, continues to get the support of pragmatic conservatives who reject former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s ideological rigidity, thought Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was too conservative and viewed Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a bomb thrower.

Clearly, establishment Republicans also don’t believe Romney when he talks about his views and his agenda. If they did, they probably would feel about him the same way they feel about Santorum or Bachmann.

Romney’s great asset is that these voters figure he is merely pandering to evangelicals and the most conservative element of the GOP when he talks about cultural issues, immigration and taxes.

The bottom line, of course, is that nobody — not his critics and not his allies — really believes Mitt Romney.

And that’s among Republicans.

For all the differences in personality and background, that’s why I’ve always thought of Mitt as the New Nixon. He may succeed politically because people with money figure he’ll do what it takes for him–and them–to win, because he’s a safer bet than his opponents, and even because people are cynical enough about him to assume he won’t let principles get in the way of doing things the country obviously needs. But (with the obvious exception of LDS folk) he’s not going to inspire much of anybody, and can ascend to a victory over Barack Obama only on the dark wings of an exceptionally nasty negative campaign reinforced by disheartening external events.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.