The first votes in the Republican presidential contest were two weeks from being cast when Mitt Romney arrived in Bedford, New Hampshire, to give a speech with the same title as his campaign slogan: “Believe in America.” In the fifteen minutes the address consumed, Romney declared his belief not just in America but in the notion that “our founding principles are what made America the greatest nation in the history of the Earth”—principles that include “the pursuit of happiness,” which is the “foundation of a society that is based on ability, not birthright.” Romney also talked about Barack Obama, who, according to Romney, “sees America differently” and believes in an “entitlement society” in which “government should create equal outcomes.” “President Obama has reversed John Kennedy’s call for sacrifice,” Romney thundered. “He would have Americans now ask, ‘What can the country do for you?’ ”
Romney’s speech was billed by his advisers as his closing argument before the GOP nomination fight kicks off in earnest with the Iowa caucuses on January 3. But you would be forgiven for thinking it sounded more like the opening salvo in a general election. Romney drew no explicit—or, really, implicit—contrasts with any of his Republican rivals, training his fire exclusively on the Democrat in the Oval Office. His focus reflected a strategy from which his campaign has rarely deviated all year long. But it was also born of a confidence in Team Romney so deep it borders on serene: that the nomination is, if not in entirely the bag, then about to stuffed there soon. “The dynamics couldn’t be better for us,” says a senior Romney strategist. “I don’t see any scenario where we’re not the nominee.”
At the start of December, this degree of self-assurance would have seemed not merely misplaced but a sign of mental illness. Newt Gingrich was surging, Romney was reeling, and the political-media class was predicting, with its own demented brand of amnesiac certitude, that the day of reckoning had come for Mitt’s (supposedly) fatally flawed candidacy. On the cover of Time, his face was pictured beside the half-mocking, half-pitying headline, “Why Don’t They Like Me?”
What a difference a month has made. At this writing a few days before Christmas, Romney has reassumed his perch in the catbird seat: level with the deflating Gingrich in the national polls, far ahead of him (and everyone else) in New Hampshire, and quite possibly on the verge of pulling out a win over the rising Ron Paul in Iowa. Romney and his people deserve much of the credit for this turn of events. But an equally large share belongs with the fact that, rather than staging a proper nominating contest, the GOP finds itself hosting what Republican strategist Alex Castellanos calls “the world’s greatest clusterfuck.”
In other words, Romney has had his share of unearned good fortune. And though the lack of affection for him in his party’s base might yet come back to bite him, at the moment he appears to be on the verge of proving an eternal verity of politics: Better to be lucky than loved.
The first visible sign of the Romney rebound came in the final Republican debate of the year in Sioux City, Iowa, on December 15. The national press corps had flocked to the northwest corner of the state in the expectation of a Donnybrook. But apart from the food in the filing center—from a local joint called La Juanita, whose tacos should be enough to persuade any Republican possessing taste buds to embrace the causes of amnesty and open borders—the event provided little satisfaction for reporters. Romney, in particular, eschewed attacks on Gingrich or any of his other opponents, instead heaving brickbats at the president and massaging the right’s erogenous zones. (On Obama’s request that Iran return a downed U.S. drone: “A foreign policy based on pretty please? You have got to be kidding.”) After a less than stellar showing five days earlier at the ABC News debate in Des Moines, he was back on his game.
The next morning, Romney conducted a town-hall meeting at a nearby steel plant, flashing his private-sector bona fides, and then flew off to South Carolina, where he received the coveted endorsement of the state’s governor, Nikki Haley. In the days that followed, his campaign unfurled a great many more such shows of support: from Bob Dole, Illinois senator Mark Kirk, and, for us New Yorkers, a slew of local Republican leaders. On top of that, he snared the backing of three newspapers—the Des Moines Register, the Portsmouth Herald (of New Hampshire), and the Oklahoman (the Oklahoma City daily)—with widely diverse political leanings, allowing his campaign to argue for the ideological breadth of Romney’s appeal.