The candidate who started the GOP primary season with the most money and as the favorite to win – as the man who came in second in the ’08 race – is now the winner. Mitt Romney this week claimed victory by winning the last of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the win.
But it took a long strange trip to confirm the conventional pre-primary wisdom that Romney will represent the party against President Obama.
For example, during the primary season, Tea Party candidates regularly surged past Romney to the lead in the polls. But Tea Party energy, which revived the GOP in 2010, was not strong enough to deny Romney the nomination.
And incredibly, the top three Republicans to reach the primary finish line – Romney, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – all pre-date the Tea Party and have strong GOP establishment credentials.
The Republican establishment candidates -- Romney, Santorum and Gingrich -- had to take hard right turns on major issues ranging from immigration, to their refusal to raise taxes by even $1. They turned down any tax hike on the richest Americans even if they could be assured of $10 in spending cuts to reduce the deficit. Despite public fatigue with war they all called for more American military intervention in world trouble spots from Libya to Iran.
The most dramatic hard right turn came from Romney as he tried to disown his Massachusetts health care plan, which is the model for President Obama’s national health care plan -- the very one loathed by the Tea Party.
Yet Romney, the ultimate winner, had trouble wooing Republican voters who identified themselves as strong conservatives. He did consistently win between 25 percent and 30 percent of the vote. That means he regularly lost 70 percent of the vote.
That deficit was glaring in southern states, the heart of the modern Republican Party base where Romney overwhelmingly lost the nomination contests.
Even as he faced fewer opponents towards the end of the primary season Romney consistently struggled to get more than 50 percent of the vote. He won by a mere plurality in the GOP primaries in Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The big question going forward is how the Tea Party and establishment wings of the GOP can unite around Romney to achieve their one common goal – ousting President Obama from the White House.
It will be tricky.
Note that none of Romney’s opponents is on the list of possible running mates. This will not be a new version of Ronald Reagan embracing George H. W. Bush as his running mate in 1980 after a tough primary fight. Nor will this year’s GOP ticket feature the healing gesture of Sen. Bob Dole joining forces with party loyalist Jack Kemp.
The self-inflicted wounds of this primary reflect the deep, structural divide within the Republican party. It can be seen in the recent defeat of establishment GOP leaders like Sen. Richard Lugar. It is on display in the on-going fight in Texas for the GOP senate nomination. Tea Party candidate – and Sarah Palin favorite – Ted Cruz is now in a run-off against Gov. Perry’s establishment choice, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
At the GOP convention in Tampa the challenge will be to keep the divide from becoming the media story. The problem is that all of Romney’s challengers want a prime time speaking slot to advance their own brand of Republicanism and their political fortunes.
Santorum, for example, wants a good speaking slot. But he didn’t endorse Romney until the 13th paragraph in a late-night E-mail last month.
And it is hard to forget that not so long ago Santorum, who defeated Romney in ten states on the basis of his strong evangelical conservatism, called Romney “the worst possible Republican” to run against Obama. He repeatedly accused Romney of being untruthful and misrepresenting his own record.
The same calculation attaches to Gingrich. His Super PAC ran ads that called Romney “greedy, ruthless corporate raider who slashed jobs for profit.” Gingrich himself accused Bain of “undermining capitalism” and “killing jobs.”
Even Gov. Perry will be a hard pick for a prime time speech during the convention. It was the Texan who first attacked Romney for “vulture capitalism.”
Perry also pointed out that Romney did not have a good record of job creation as governor of Massachusetts. He even said that liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis had a better record of job creation. Now the same line of attack is coming from the Obama campaign. It will be hard for Perry to speak in defense of Romney.
The other primary also-rans are also looking for Romney to give them a prime time television spot to speak at the GOP convention. But how will that look? For example, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has said that Romney is a “big government candidate.”
And then there is Texas Rep. Ron Paul. His supporters continue to collect delegates by arguing that party supporters are still free to change their minds at the convention. They are the most likely source of a big protest against Romney at the convention if Romney’s team denies Paul a major piece of prime time television real estate.
And finally there is Donald Trump and the “Birther” wing of the party. Will Trump want to speak in Tampa?
For a man bloodied during the primary fight, Romney is surprisingly even with Obama, in most polls. But as he moves on to the general election, he will still have to deal with divisions inside the GOP.
Well, congratulations are due to Mitt Romney. Now, he’ll need more good luck herding the big cats still prowling inside the Republican camp.
Juan Williams is a Fox News political analyst. He is the author of several books including "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It" and "Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate."