Republican candidates for president have been busy for weeks now, laboring strenuously to give the 2012 nomination to Mitt Romney. And he keeps trying to give it back.
The former Massachusetts governor could walk to next year's GOP convention without touching the ground, treading exclusively on the bodies of rivals who have fallen on their faces. He's the equivalent of the Alabama Crimson Tide, playing a schedule heavy on Southeastern Louisiana and Middle Tennessee State.
He should be running up the score every week. Instead, he keeps finding ways to keep his opponents in the game.
Look at the opposition. Rick Perry has proved so inept in the debates that he may bail out of some. Herman Cain can't understand the meaning of "pro-life" or his own tax plan. Michele Bachmann enjoyed a burst of popularity that evaporated when voters got to know her.
Newt Gingrich never enjoyed a burst of popularity and never will. Jon Huntsman might, but only if he runs in the Democratic primaries. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are proving that ideological purity is incompatible with political success. It's the Seven Dwarves in search of Snow White.
This campaign was custom-designed for Romney. Having run before, he had presumptive credibility. Some possibly formidable contenders—Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence—chose to sit this race out.
Romney possesses other assets. He has a record of achievement in both the public and private sectors. He's fully acquainted with substantive issues. He's familiar to Republican voters from his race against John McCain four years ago.
He's turned out to be the best debater, thanks to a facility with the spoken word that is not universal in the field. He shows a talent for repelling attacks while keeping a smile on his face.
He brings in more cash than a casino on payday. He makes Mormonism as threatening as Fig Newtons. He looks like a million bucks.
True, he has been guilty of occasional deviations from orthodox Republican theology, but so were McCain (the 2008 nominee) and Bob Dole (1996). His heresies on gay rights, abortion, and gun control required extensive displays of penance, which he performed the last time out.
Besides, the GOP actually tends to nominate candidates closer to the party's center than its right edge. George W. Bush, remember, ran as a "compassionate conservative," to distinguish himself from the other kind.
Romney has also come up with an unpersuasive but not intolerable excuse for his health care reform plan, which is that it's suitable for Massachusetts and Massachusetts alone. This story is not enough to please Republicans, but it should serve to appease them.
Romney does not aspire to be the fellow at the party who enchants the girls with his dance moves and charm. He's more like the guy they settle on once all the other guys have passed out drunk, gotten distracted by a ball game, or come on way too strong. He's not thrilling, but he's not a disaster.
It would help, though, if he could stop committing inexplicable mistakes. Weeks ago, he praised an Ohio ballot initiative to curb the collective bargaining rights of government employees. Then on Wednesday, on a trip to Cincinnati, he declined to take a position. Then, after taking fire, he endorsed it.
All Romney achieved was to remind everyone of his uncanny resemblance to a windsock. In The New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey writes that when he asks Bay Staters about him, "I get a recurring response: Nixonian." They see him as slippery, smarmy, and void of principles.
Is that enough for him to lose the nomination? Maybe not. He's trailing Cain among Republican voters in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, but in a CNN/Time/ORC survey, he leads everyone in the four states that will vote first. Republicans are aflame with the idea of defeating Obama, and Romney may be the only candidate who could do that.
A Democratic insider told National Journal, "He can talk and chew gum at the same time, which puts him way ahead of the other candidates." One anonymous GOP bigwig added, "Republicans are beginning to realize that this is a choice between Romney and the unelectable."
If it hurts to be called Nixonian, Romney has this consolation: Nixon won.
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