The inevitability of Romney

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 10, 2012

 

The Mitt Romney close victory in the Iowa caucus and his expected victory in today's primaries in New Hampshire make his nomination as the Republican candidate almost inevitable. His most important challenge ahead will be to go back to his former moderate positions without alienating conservative voters and resisting efforts by the Democratic Party to cast him as an unprincipled flip flopper.

 

The initial Romney roadmap to the Republican nomination did not include a victory in Iowa. His strategists believed that Romney's moderate and mostly urban attributes would not go well in rural Iowa. Besides, Romney finished second in Iowa in 2008, after having campaigned extensively there.  His failure to win Iowa in 2008 weakened his campaign so much that he eventually lost the lead he built in the previous months.

 

Established candidates normally survive Iowa, but most up and coming candidates face a do or die challenge there. As a result, new candidates spend an enormous amount of energy and resources in Iowa, making a victory there extremely expensive for established candidates. The fact that Romney won Iowa, though by the slimmest margin, was a resounding victory. He spent less there—as a proportion of his total resources—than of all his opponents, except Huntsman, and still won. His victory already got Michele Bachmann out of the way, and all but killed Perry and Newt Gingrich. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul survived, but as they stay in the race, they are likely to divide the conservative and Tea Party vote and make it easier for Romney to win the upcoming primaries.

 

In New Hampshire, a state that borders with Massachusetts, where Romney was a popular governor, Romney will need to dispose of John Huntsman, the other moderate in the race. In New Hampshire, moderate Republicans need to show that they are viable candidates.  If Romney wins today, he will consolidate his lead and will further strengthen the perception of inevitability of his nomination.

 

Because time is running out for his rivals, attacks by other Republican hopefuls increased over the weekend. Romney’s weaknesses are many, but some resonate better with some audiences.  The attacks he was subjected to in Iowa have changed as the focus moved to New Hampshire. Romney’s past experience in offering consulting services to companies that needed restructuring has emerged as the favorite attack theme for his rivals. Because restructuring often involves lay-offs and reductions in workers’ benefits, Romney’s rivals have portrayed him as a businessman too distant to the realities of middle class Americans. Republican rivals have begun to cast Romney in ways that will be widely used by President Obama and the Democratic Party when the presidential campaign officially begins.

 

Surprisingly, Romney has also contributed to that characterization. Only yesterday, a statement he made in support of choosing a health care plan was quickly turned into an embarrassing comment about his disregard for those who lose their jobs.  His rivals have turned the “I like being able to fire people” comment into an effort at character assassination.  Though the attacks probably signal the desperation of other Republicans who now have a slim change of blocking Romney’s road to the nomination, the focus on Romney’s affiliation with the top 1% and his distance with the harsh realities of the other 99%--a theme that Occupy Wall Street has successfully brought to the political debate—will inevitable damage his effort to cast himself as the reasonable and experienced businessman turned politician that can get the country back in the right direction.

 

Romney still has a long way to go before securing the Republican nomination. The conservative voting bloc will eventually rally behind a single Republican candidate to make a last effort to block Romney. Ron Paul will stay in the race until the convention. Others, like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich will delay their withdrawal hoping for a self-inflicted wound that can weaken Romney. Still, Romney needs to start focusing on President Obama and pay decreasing attention to other Republicans in the race. That will consolidate his lead, further strengthen the perception of inevitability of his nomination and allow him to further refine his strengths that will make competitive against the incumbent President. Though it is too early to start discussing a vice-presidential choice, it is already getting late when it comes to distancing from the most extreme conservative positions that he had to embrace as he worked to minimize the rejection he generates among the most conservative wing of his party.

 

When the race to the presidential election began, there seemed to be two inevitable outcomes. First, despite the opposition by the conservative Christian right and Tea Partiers, Romney would win the Republican nomination.  Second, despite all the economic difficulties, President Obama would win a second term. Romney is now close to confirming the first expected outcome. He will then need to move away from being the inevitable Republican candidate and become the challenger that can turn the 2012 election into a competitive race where the early favorite candidate actually ends up losing.