Slow and steady is the way Mitt Romney will win the race. With Rick Perry looking less electable every time he appears in public and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie still not in the race (or out of it, for that matter), Romney is left to fold his hands and sit quietly, hoping that eventually, for lack of better options, Republican voters and donors will rally behind him. "Who knows, maybe he'll get in," Romney said of Christie on Wednesday. "It'd be fun if he got in." Imagine the effort that went into that fake smile. Romney — even he must have realized by now — is almost no one's first choice.
As Jeff Zeleny writes in today's New York Times, Romney's "strategy, by necessity, has evolved into being the last choice, an eat-your-vegetables candidate who may only be seen as more appealing when he is matched up alongside his rivals."
With unsteadiness all around him, and the experience of the 2008 race behind him, Romney is at least well-practiced:
He has managed, so far, to finesse his way around the concerns of ideological shape-shifting that once seemed a deal breaker to many conservatives. Questions about the health care plan he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts have not overshadowed his candidacy. And he has not been pushed to address his Mormon faith, which created a stir four years ago and prompted him to give a speech seeking to explain his beliefs.
But the donors still aren't convinced, with many of them still holding their breath for Christie. "There is enough chatter and phone calls and static — whatever you call it in the spy business — that everyone is just sitting around," explained one businessman. "There is confusion among the main donors. No one has signed up with either major campaign in the last three weeks."
Romney's greatest virtue will be patience. As the primary schedule shapes up, the early states are poised to split between Perry and Romney, with a small Super Tuesday "centered in Perry country." Romney has to survive the South, but after that, the Northeast provides an opportunity for a fatal blow, with five states, including New York and Pennsylvania, scheduled to vote on April 24. "If it’s a protracted battle, [April 24] is a place Romney can equalize whatever advantage Perry has gained," said one political scientist. "It could [also] be a tipping point where he wins decisively over Perry."
According to Tim Pawlenty, a Romney supporter since dropping out himself, the lukewarm response to Romney is a "grass is always greener scenario." That's still playing out at Romney's campaign stops: Voters in New Hampshire yesterday questioned whether he has "that piece of magic" that Obama did in 2008. One woman wished she could "combine Mitt Romney with Herman Cain," whose poll numbers have tripled since his straw poll win over the weekend, illustrating the ongoing Republican restlessness. But if Cain is pizza and Perry is barbecue — that is, they look good, but eventually leave you feeling gross — Romney's vegetables are the only healthy option.