Taking a gentlemanly, congratulatory phone call from Sen. John McCain after he stuffed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus in January of 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is reported to have chuckled — with a little too much venom — “I beat Romney here, now you take him in New Hampshire.” Which is exactly what happened. And Huckabee meant it, too.  That shiv neatly sums up the animosity Republicans who run for president tend to feel towards the feckless Romney, now 1-0 in 2012, and on the verge of being 2-0 if his firewall in New Hampshire holds firm next week and new polls in South Carolina showing him with a strong lead there turn out to be correct.

But before New Hampshire votes next week and makes Romney 2-0 and the presumptive nominee, it’s worth asking one question: Can he be stopped?

Big answer: Maybe, maybe not, because the same five reasons Romney has the nomination locked up are the exact five reasons he could still lose.

 

Lock.

He’s got so much money — that of his campaign, his Super Pac that spent $3 million destroying Newt Gingrich in a matter of weeks on Iowans’ TV screens, and his own private fortune estimated at over $200 million. After New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada comes Florida — an expensive market in which to campaign.  And no other candidate can hit the airwaves with us much force or range as Romney.

He’s got the establishment falling into line behind his candidacy. The Tea Party has already put a noose around the House of Representatives, and establishment conservatives are desperate that it not do the same to the presidential standard-bearer, what with President Obama’s approval still stuck slightly below 50 percent. In state after state, governors and representatives are falling in line to support Romney with party stars like New Jersey’s bully of a governor, Chris Christie, leading the way. As Romney’s wins pile up, elected Republicans will endorse so as not to lose favor with their party’s eventual nominee.

The other candidates will continue to split the right wing vote. Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul divvied up some 75 percent of the vote in Iowa and, because of that split, they each lost to Romney — albeit by a “landslide” of eight votes in Santorum’s case. That might be Romney’s low ceiling, true, but if the other candidates continue to vie for three-quarters of the GOP pie, Romney’s 25 percent slice could be enough in state after state to rack up delegates and be crowned the nominee in Tampa. And 25 percent probably isn’t his ceiling.

Santorum and Perry want to be the Vice Presidential nominee. Gingrich and Paul couldn’t care less about their future in the Republican party (though Paul surely is interested in protecting his fringe of the nutty wing for a future presidential run by his son, Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul). But Santorum and Perry both can hope to make an argument that they would bring right wing enthusiasm with them into a fall campaign (much as George Bush, Sr. made the same, but reverse, argument to Ronald Reagan in 1980, that Bush could bring the moderate and establishment wings to unite with the conservative Reaganites). Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and Sarah Palin were all figureheads for the right wing of a party that was simply holding its nose for the more moderate top of the ticket. Santorum or Perry could vie to be next in the VP in that fated line.

The GOP is full of amateur pundits. Even if they don’t like Romney, Republicans have told pollsters that they believe he is the most electable. Of all the GOP candidates, he still polls best nationally against Obama, trailing the president by just 2.2 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of a dozen of the most recent national polls. And in state by state polling — because the only number that matters in the general election is 270, the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency — Romney is running competitively against the president in the bell weather battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, all states Obama won in 2008 and needs to win in 2012.

 

Lose.

He’s got so much money — but the populist revolts that gave rise to both the Tea Party in 2010 and the Occupy movement in 2011 have hardly abated. And rich white guys are their target. Santorum is hitting hard the Tea Party, Buchananesque, blue collar argument that government is ruining industry, manufacturing, and the social fabric of America. Romney’s personal wealth and what he represents as a corporate businessman running for high office may be the very totems of ultra-affluence that work against him — especially if he makes another bizarre statement like “corporations are people.” This is why Gingrich has taken to saying that Romney is trying to buy the nomination. It’s an argument that may take hold if the race tightens.

He’s got the establishment falling in line — but the leading figures of that endorsing establishment are George Bush, Sr., Bob Dole, and John McCain, who combined lost three out of the last five presidential races. And none were favored by the conservative-I-hate-you reactionaries in the Republican party. If the reactionaries rally behind a single candidate — say, Santorum — and ditch Gingrich, Perry, and Paul, then Romney’s 25 percent threshold will not hold against a party eager for a happy, reactionary warrior to run against Obama.

Santorum and Perry want to be the Vice Presidential nominee. Unless one or the other is the Presidential nominee. In 2008, pundits were certain that Barack Obama was only running for — and could only win — the Vice Presidential nod against Hillary Clinton. What they didn’t know was that Obama’s campaign had developed a February strategy to sweep the caucus contests that immediately followed Super Tuesday. Santorum could quickly become the darling of the right — and Perry has the fund-raising chops to stay in the fight — so if the campaign drags on past Florida and Romney can’t sew it up and no surprise candidate enters late, then playing hard but respectful in order to get the number two spot may fall away. In its place? Playing all out for the win.

The GOP is full of amateur pundits — but only a very few predicted Santorum’s amazing Iowa finish. So for all the windbaggery, attention must be paid to the voters, no? And God love them for that. Given all the loopy twists of the 2012 primaries so far, and knowing that GOP voters down the line just don’t seem to like Mitt Romney, anything could happen.

 

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DAVID BIESPIEL is the president of the Attic Institute. His most books include Every Writer Has a Thousand Faces, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, and Shattering Air.

6 responses to “Romney: Can He or Can’t He?”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    Great breakdown, David, and it’s nice to see you here.

    It has been fun to watch to this point. Every candidate the fringe throws up against Romney gets PACed. He’s the only one with a chance against Obama, in my opinion, and if the economy keeps recovering, not even him. I can hear the (very good) argument now: “You want to give the presidency back them them? After we finally pulled ourselves out of the mess they made with deregulation and the War in Iraq?” If the economy recovers, then we’re watching the only game in 2012.

    • Hello, Art. Thanks. Every four years the parties beg their voters to decide early. Sometimes it happens, ’96 for GOP, ’04 for Democrats. But it’s often the case too the campaigning goes on: ’76, ’80, for GOP, ’80, ’84, ’88, ’92, ’08 for Democrats. ’76 for GOP might turn out to be the model for ’12. Thus, the beauty of punditry — we’ll find out soon enough.

  2. Brad Listi says:

    This party is so schizophrenic and fractured, it’s hard to know what will happen, but I suppose with the heavyweights lining up behind Romney—money-wise, politically, etc.—he’ll wind up taking the nomination eventually. The Powers That Be seem to have decided that he’s their man, which means the GOP will have nominated a guy who, while governor of the ‘most loathed liberal state in the union,’ was pro-choice and pro-healthcare-mandate—but is now, nominally anyway, vehemently opposed to those things. (And he used to be more pro-gay-rights, too.)

    Bananas.

    I mean, I understand that people, politicians included, will change their mind from time to time. Totally normal and totally acceptable. But this guy has done a complete 180 on some pretty deep core issues.

    And from a strategic standpoint, it’s wise, I suppose to go with him as the nominee. Picking from the current field, that’s probably who I would support, too, if I were a Republican. You want to play for the middle in the general. But I just don’t know how enthused the base is going to be when the Obama campaign starts running all those ads with clips of Romney trumpeting his support for a woman’s right to choose, universal health care, etc.

    Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    • Hello, Brad. That Brad?! You’re completely right. The re-elect office in Chicago is definitely putting together Mitt v. Mitt advertising. And the direct line of debate will look like this: Obama: “we modeled our health care reform after yours, Governor Romney. We even hired some of your staff. Romneycare and Obamacare are one and the same, except Obamacare is not as liberal as yours.” Boom.

  3. Paul Clayton says:

    Good analysis, David. And I agree, the re-elect people want Mitt. If, as you say, Gingrich and Paul couldn’t care less about their future in the Republican party, that’s a plus in my book. But Paul is too much a one trick pony for me. That leaves Gingrich, who I like. The Republican party seems to be headed up by timid fools anyway. Yeah, I’d take Gingrich in a heartbeat over the current occupant of the White House.

    “Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, and Sarah Palin were all figureheads for the right wing of a party that was simply holding its nose for the more moderate top of the ticket. ” I say, no more of that. If we get a Mitt with a Perry or Santorum VP, I think people will be so pissed there could be a third party candidate. That would throw it to Obama, of course, but that’s the way I see it. Too many people, Tea Party I-hate-you types like myself, are sick of party men. We don’t want another McCain that will throw it to the other side. We want a candidate that shares our concerns and hopes, not some button down glib schmoozmeister that the Republicans (mistakenly) think will get safely through the Democrat/major media barrage and cavity search that awaits him/her (and that the current occupant of the WH never got).

    Like a lot of folks (not on here, but at large) I think America needs to really have the issues of the day clearly laid out on the table before them during this pivotal election. Do they want a Venezuelan-style Socialist state with government supported and sanctioned mobs harassing dissident politicians and thinkers, or do they want a Republic peopled by entrepreneurial people free and unafraid to speak their mind on any subject? Do we want crony capitalism with government picking winners and losers, as is the case with our current administration’s war on carbon based energy, or do we want a free market-driven economy?

    Let the people choose. But they can only choose if we have a candidate that will articulate these arguments. And I don’t think Romney is that person.

    • I hear you, brother. The Republicans have a history of taking the muddled-middle and calling it conservative. Even the idolized Ronald Reagan signed legislation to raise taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office, including when unemployment was above 10%. In 1982, at the height of the Reagan recession, Reagan signed legislation to raise taxes that, as a percentage of the economy, was the largest tax increase in American history. During his eight years in office, according to Bruce Bartlett, one of Reagan’s domestic policy advisers, the principled Reagan signed legislation to raise taxes a dozen times.

      So, I hear you, my friend. The down the line GOP conservatives who give the establishment candidate their hearts get disappointed. You can hear the same pining in the lefty salons about President Obama. And yet, and yet. We don’t have a down the line anything, left or right. We have a government-subsidized free market oil industry and government-subsidized free market agricultural industry. Let’s call that socialist gasoline and socialist bread, fruit, vegetables, beef, chicken, and pork. We have a single payer health care system for seniors with free market doctors and hospitals. We have a socialized military subsidizing a free market defense industry. Socialized fire and police protection. Socialized highway system to provide easy access for our free market goods. The nation funds both pluribus and the unum. But, I hear, I hear you. At least Gingrich doesn’t pretend about it.

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