Romney Must Block Huntsman, Keep GOP Field Divided

As Mitt Romney moves into official campaign mode, he might be excused for wondering what’s so great about being a frontrunner anyway.

In a tumultuous Republican field, Romney is as close as the party has to an actual frontrunner. He has the staff, organization and cash that come with the title. Most polls do show him in the lead, but narrowly and often neck and neck with folks who aren’t running like Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani.

And what does he get for a 15 percent share of a five or six way race? A big target painted on his back as the “establishment candidate.” Since the Republican establishment has been a dying elephant for a long time, the brand is almost all downside. It lets your primary opponents beat you up and doesn’t add much electoral weight in early primaries.

History shows a considerable advantage for establishment candidates. The last four Republican presidential nominees have been products of the institutional GOP. But an informal survey of the professional political class in Washington doesn’t suggest that Romney has the same kind of lock-step support that his predecessors enjoyed.

It may be the nasty fight in the 2008 primaries. Unlike McCain’s 2000 upstart campaign, Romney chased the frontrunner deep into the primary calendar and traded a lot of body blows with not only McCain but Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani.

So Romney gets branded as the inside man, even though he isn’t. Not fun.

Romney’s natural advantages beyond his money and organization relate to geography (the former Massachusetts governor owns a home in New Hampshire), his resume as a successful businessman (many Republicans wondered how much better than McCain Romney might have fared against Barack Obama during an election overshadowed by a financial panic) and his appeal to a more moderate wing of the party (the hybrid of social conservatism and libertarianism in the Tea Party movement has been unsettling to many rock-ribbed Republicans).

Romney’s biggest advantage, though, has been what all of his frontrunner forbearers had going for them: inevitability. Romney’s team makes a convincing case that while Republican voters may not be swooning, their candidate is the only one who can go the distance. The scenario they paint is that Romney will come out of the early primaries with wins in New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida and be ready to outgun and outlast whoever wins the other two key early contests in Iowa and South Carolina.

And if that comes to pass, there’s no doubt that Romney would be in a good position to grind out a hard-fought win. By April 2012, Republicans would start closing ranks and helping the frontrunner to fend off attacks from the more conservative members of the field.

But for that inevitability strategy to work, Romney needs to head off two serious threats now forming.

The first is from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, fresh from his stint as Obama’s ambassador to China. As Huntsman is testing the waters for a run, he has paid particular attention to New Hampshire and Florida. They’re both must-win states for Romney precisely because they are places where a well-financed moderate can succeed. Huntsman’s support for gay civil unions and global warming fees might be deadly in Iowa and South Carolina, but not disqualifying in New Hampshire and Florida.

Huntsman’s family fortune is larger than Romney’s personal wealth and he doesn’t have to lug around a health care law that helped lay the groundwork for Obama’s national plan. Huntsman may be little known, but he also gets to start with fewer negative perceptions.

There is also the issue of their shared Mormon faith. Romney, who is devout, has struggled with how to explain and defend his beliefs to evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics who are skeptical of the Utah-based faith. Huntsman, meanwhile, told Time magazine that it was “tough to define” whether he was still a member of the faith and described himself as “very spiritual.” Romney may get credit for constancy, but it’s still not a topic on which he wants to spend much time.

Romney’s first task will be to scuttle Huntsman’s ambitions. Ideally for Romney, Huntsman would opt against a run. But if he does mount a campaign, stopping the attack from the left in New Hampshire and Florida has to become job number one for Romney.

The second threat to Romney’s inevitability strategy is an alternative candidate emerging too soon. The best scenario for Romney is that the rest of the field remains unsettled for as long as possible and that when it finally does take shape, the electorate’s divided loyalties continue to let him lead with a relatively small share of support.

A troubling scenario for Romney would be that another candidate, most likely former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, starts rounding up key endorsements this fall. Romney would not like to see Pawlenty rallying with governors Chris Christie and Jeb Bush or Perry hand in hand with Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

If Romney can make it into March without a single rival emerging, it will probably be too late for anyone to bring him down. If the various blocs of the party start looking past the long shots and marshalling their forces behind the big names in the race in August or September, Romney could see the air go out of his inevitability balloon very quickly.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.