I'm not sure that anyone is backing down on the claim that Mitt Romney is the least-bad (viable) Republican candidate, but I think Garance is slightly misunderstanding the argument beneath the assertion. My thinking does not go something like: Romney used to have better views than he does today, ergo he's probably just pandering, and will revert the "real" Mitt once he's in office. Rather, I dont hang any predictions based on the guy's cre ideology. I think Romney's got less core than a, uh, err, sigh...cored apple (damn -- need to think these metaphors through!), and he'll happily discriminate against gays and resist a sensible tax policy and all the rest of it.
But here's what Romney does have: A habituation to a set of analytical techniques and norms that will lead to a more competent White House, and a set of priorities and interests which do not focus on bombing Iran. The guy may be a panderer, but his appetite for data, and management consultant's mind, actually exist. As example, there's no reason George W. Bush had to gut FEMA and put a hack in charge of the agency. It wasn't a core tenet of conservatism, nor were his funders clamoring for less effective disaster relief. Bush just isn't a good executive. I think, based off both his history and his record in Massachusetts, that Romney is, technically speaking, fairly good. That was certainly the impression I got reporting out an article on his health care plan -- all the folks I spoke to in the Massachusetts bureaucracy had good things to say about Mitt's procedural comportment, if not about his priorities.
Nor are his interests particularly centered on foreign policy. Unlike Giuliani, whose self-conception really is linked to "the War on Islamofascistterrocommunism," I'm pretty sure that Romney's interested in finance, international trade, budgetary policy, etc. He may push policies in those areas that I dislike, but Congress has more oversight in those sectors than they do on when the executive launches the bomb, and even if they didn't, I believe that bad trade policy is relatively less damaging than bad bomb Iran policy.
I think the counter-argument to this goes something like "Mike Huckabee," but the degree to which a Huckabee presidency would rely on, and empower, the Christian Right, unnerves me too much to choose the Huck.
That said, I'd be interested in opening this one up to the floor. Tapped contributors: Who do you think would be the least bad Republican? Tapped readers: Put your choice in the comments. And no answering Ron Paul. Viable candidates only.