Published April 09, 2012
Mitt Romney, After All
“They won everything they needed to. They raised all the money that they said they would. It’s kind of annoying to say, but they pretty much did everything they said they were going to do.”
-- A former campaign advisor to former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty talking to Power Play about the campaign of likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
But those things didn’t happen. Instead, Romney survived a series of near misses and endured a protracted primary process to become what he has aimed to be all along: inevitable.
A combination of good luck and savvy strategy will soon enough deliver the Republican nomination to Romney, an unlikely choice for the GOP. A party dominated by the South with an intensely conservative core is about to nominate a moderate from Massachusetts.
But none of Romney’s rivals was able to unite the right in order to block his path.
The expectation was that after the Tea Party movement remade the Republican Party, the 2012 nominee would reflect the same energy and outsider attitude that came through in 2010 races across the country. But the movement never found the right standard bearer.
What was needed was someone conservatives trusted who could also have credibility among mainstream Republican voters and unite the party from right to left. There’s no telling if any of the high-profile Republicans who flirted with running but decided not to could have pulled that off, but among the folks who did run, each one fell short.
The most dangerous rival to Romney on paper was Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He had strong conservative credentials and won Tea Party plaudits for his stance on state sovereignty, and as governor of the second-largest state for a decade he had a credible resume. Unfortunately for Perry, he stumbled out of the gate, snubbing Iowans by announcing his candidacy at a blogger convention in South Carolina, and only went downhill from there.
The rest either lacked conservative bona fides or the stature to convince the more moderate voters whose support is necessary to capture the GOP nomination. While it is appealing for political journalists and campaign strategists to think of the race as being decided by gaffes, stratagems or messages, the larger contours are always about the quality of the candidates.
Some candidates ran surprisingly well, particularly Santorum, but none on the right had the combination of resume and political skills necessary to unhorse Romney, who had been in pursuit of the nomination since 2007.
In that way, Romney was helped by the back-to-back bad cycles for the GOP in 2006 and 2008. Those twin drubbings left the path open for Romney since many potential rivals either were tossed out of office, like Santorum, or opted not to run. The field would look very different for Romney if he was starting out with a party full of sitting governors, as it is now.
Through all the hyperventilated talk about contested conventions and of Romney being “the weakest frontrunner since Leonard Wood” the question remained: Who would defeat him?
The Not Romneys took for granted the fact that two-thirds of the party wanted someone other than a Massachusetts moderate and tried to win the nomination by railing on Romney. But except for Herman Cain, all of the top Not Romneys failed to make the case for their own candidacies. It’s not enough to convince voters why someone else should lose, you have to convince them why you should win.
Santorum, like Gingrich before him, did himself in by attacking Romney too often and too harshly. Gingrich stumbled in Florida, believing that his South Carolina success was due to attacks on Romney’s work in private equity investing. The message bombed in Florida. For Santorum, the moment came after Super Tuesday when he squandered the chance to broaden his mainstream appeal by ratcheting up his attacks on Romney as being little better than President Obama.
But Romney did not become the inevitable nominee simply because his pursuers stumbled, but because he did what he set out to do. Romney won each “must win” state, even though some were by alarmingly close margins, and he stayed relentlessly on message: private-sector experience, “not a career politician” and general-election viability against a well-funded incumbent.
Romney planned all along to hopscotch his way through the primary process, knowing that he would have trouble in the South and with socially conservative caucus-goers in places like Iowa. And Romney reached every milestone his campaign set out to achieve. His big wins in New Hampshire and Florida carried him through January, leaving the well-funded frontrunner to grind out victories in all the places he needed to.
Each cycle brings candidates who promise to reinvent the presidential campaign, but it’s hard to trump sound fundamentals: big money, big organization and a disciplined candidate. Insurgents sometimes win, like Obama in 2008, but never without developing the infrastructure necessary to support a full-scale, national campaign.
Forget about all of the excitements of the micro-news cycle of a presidential campaign and go back to this date in 2011, just ahead of the first debate in Greenville, S.C.
If someone had told you the states Romney would win and what his delegate count would be by today, you’d probably shrug and say that it was about what you expected, maybe even a little better.
As hard as it is for his detractors to admit, Romney pretty much called his shot and then delivered.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.