Mr. Perfect’s Slip

Illustration by Darrow

In the days leading up to Mitt Romney’s ballyhooed declamation last week on “faith in America”—a.k.a. the Mormon Speech—there existed among politicos, pontificators, and even some of Romney’s advisers a widely shared opinion: that the gambit was a no-win proposition. That it would spotlight the very issue he had sought to downplay all year long. That he would have to choose between demystifying his religion, and thus risk alienating Christian-right voters who consider his church a cult, and skirting all matters of theology and doctrine, and thus risk accomplishing nothing. Romney was promising, after all, a defining oration in which he would “offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my presidency.” But how precisely could a devout Mormon do that without discussing, er, Mormonism?

Romney’s answer was a ringing endorsement of “our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty,” a speech carefully crafted, at times eloquent, and almost entirely free of specific discussion of his spiritual beliefs. Instead of elucidating how being a Mormon (a word that he uttered only once) would shape his outlook on policy or politics, he emphasized the “common creed of moral convictions” that binds together Catholics (name-checked thrice), Jews and Muslims (twice), Evangelicals, Lutherans, and Pentecostals. Indeed, so vague and feel-goody was Romney that even William Bennett was moved to observe on CNN, “I could see this speech … being given by any of the Republican candidates and most of the Democrat candidates, frankly.”

Here in the proud mecca of what Romney scorned as the “religion of secularism,” the Romney speech will surely be greeted with a mixture of resignation, queasiness, and incredulity. (Romney: “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom”—apparently we agnostics aren’t merely sodomites but slaves as well.) But, of course, Romney’s talk wasn’t meant for our ears. It was aimed at Republican primary and caucus voters, especially those in Iowa, where suddenly, astonishingly, his path to his party’s nomination is being threatened by the unexpected surge of Mike Huckabee.

Yet even if Romney managed to assuage the fears or dampen the prejudices of some of those voters—a humongous if—it hardly means that the former Massachusetts governor is back on the road to victory. For all of the quantifiable problems that Romney’s Mormonism has always posed to his candidacy, there are larger obstacles that he faces. From the outset, he has run a textbook campaign, the kind that at any prior moment in Republican nominating history would have likely made him a commanding front-runner. That he manifestly isn’t, less than one month before the first votes are cast, says something about his weaknesses as a politician, to be sure. But it speaks even more loudly to the thudding collapse of the GOP coalition, and, with it, the descent into abject chaos of the process by which the party selects its kings.

A few days before Romney’s religion address, I caught up with him at a Rotary Club luncheon in Manchester, New Hampshire. The candidate arrived immediately after the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, peeled off his jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and uncorked a disquisition on the topic of Romneynomics. The various elements of his platform were achingly predictable: “impose spending discipline,” “reform entitlement system,” “win the global economic competition,” “open markets for America,” and the ever-popular “implement pro-growth tax cuts and oppose tax increases.” What was surprising—nay, astonishing—was the form this lecture took. Instead of a standard-issue stump speech, Romney offered, I kid you not, a PowerPoint presentation.

Now, Romney’s business background, his sheen of managerial competence, is a central element of what he’s selling. The years at the helm of Bain & Company. The turnaround of the Salt Lake City Olympics. Still! Even in the drowsiest corporate settings, there is no greater buzz kill than a PowerPoint performance. Yet here was Romney, pummeling his audience with 21 slides and 50 bulleted points in 25 minutes, scarcely giving them a chance to breathe, let alone applaud—which they did just once, near the end, when Romney blurted out the insight that fuels his boundless optimism: “You know what? We’re a pretty darned good country!”

To no small extent, Romney’s entire presidential bid has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation come to life: linear, analytical, bloodless. The game plan that he and his advisers devised was straightforward. First, raise a ton of dough. Second, play the inside game: Court the Beltway Republican Establishment, neutralize the most vocal sources of potential opposition, rack up gold-plated endorsements. On issues, cravenly disregard what Romney once stood for, tailoring his positions to make him minimally acceptable to the three legs of the GOP stool: social, economic, and national-security conservatives. Pour resources into Iowa, win there and in New Hampshire (where Romney retains a pronounced quasi-hometown edge), then roll to the nomination.

On the face of it, the plan made sense—until Huckabee caught fire, that is, and exposed its fragility. For much of the year, the former Arkansas governor was barely an asterisk in national polls, and because he was pitifully underfunded, it was presumed, not least by Romney’s people, that he would remain so. But Huckabee’s geniality and sense of humor, his estimable performance skills, and his apparent authenticity always made him a credible dark horse. And his pedigree as a Baptist minister, together with his unabashed embrace of the tenets of Christianism (the man happily admits to not believing in evolution and speaks openly of a divine hand propelling his political ascent), always made him a credible claimant to the Evangelical vote.

The speed and precipitousness of Huckabee’s rise—he now leads in Iowa and has soared to second place in the national polls—have been truly shocking. And his new prominence has already garnered him a withering and unfamiliar brand of scrutiny. His alleged intervention on behalf of a convicted rapist in Arkansas, fairly or not, has Willie Horton written all over it. But Huckabee is connected to a deep network of politically minded pastors in Iowa, which could readily play a pivotal role in helping turn out the Evangelical vote for him there. (In the past, roughly a third of all caucus-goers have been Christian-right voters.) And if that happens, there is every chance that he could carry the day on January 3.

That Romney felt compelled to give his religion speech is a clear indicator of how spooked he is by Huckabee. But among politico-religious operatives, there’s no shortage of doubt that Romney’s maneuver will have much effect in Iowa. “The support for Huckabee isn’t anti-Mormon,” says one such strategist. “It’s pro-Evangelical—and that’s something Romney, no matter how many speeches he gives, will never be.”

What the old Republican Party would have done is anoint a front-runner and let him run the table.

A loss in Iowa would make New Hampshire a must-win state for Romney. And, indeed, as is the case for Hillary Clinton, the Granite State has long been viewed as his fire wall. But although Romney’s lead there remains healthy, there are signs it could crumble. Last week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll found that about two thirds of Romney’s supporters say they would consider voting for someone else.

And who might that be? Perhaps—another shocker—John McCain. Having staked his campaign on the state he won in the 2000 race, McCain, back aboard the Straight Talk Express, seems to be regaining something approaching his old form. And according to a McCain strategy memo circulating last week, a recent Fox News survey showed him as the second choice of 45 percent of Romney voters.

The truth is that, should Romney lose in Iowa, McCain, Huckabee, or Giuliani could smite Mitt down in New Hampshire and beyond. Giuliani and McCain have long commanded greater support outside Iowa and New Hampshire than Romney, who has struggled all year to break out of single digits in the national polls. And the fact that Huckabee, still a largely unknown commodity, has swiftly moved past Romney gives the lie to the long-espoused argument from Mitt’s camp that his anemic support is merely a function of low name recognition. What Huckabee, McCain, and Giuliani have in common is that each of them, unlike Romney, has a bona fide, albeit limited, constituency: for Huckabee, social conservatives; for McCain, foreign-policy hawks and immigration doves; for Rudy, tough-on-terror types and anti-taxers. (Last week, please note, our former mayor garnered the closest thing to an endorsement anyone is going to get from Grover Norquist, the Washington ayatollah of tax-cutting zealots.) What they also share is that each is running an unconventional campaign: ignoring supposedly unignorable constituencies, opting out of allegedly unskippable caucuses and primaries.

In the past, of course, none of these campaigns would have stood a chance in the GOP: the orderly party, the disciplined party, the party of primogeniture. What the old Republican Party would have done is anoint a front-runner and let him run the table. Someone who’d touched all the bases, ticked off all the boxes. Someone like Mitt, that is. But instead here he is, mired in such desperation that he believed he had no choice but to undertake the boldest act of his candidacy—a what-the-fuck, double-down wager whose biggest conceivable payoff might be the elimination of just one reason why a small segment of Republican voters might have voted against him. (As opposed to, you know, giving them an affirmative reason to vote for him.) Pity poor Mitt, a capable guy, a plausible front-runner, now on the verge of seeing his fondest dreams dashed because his party started acting like … well, Democrats.


Mr. Perfect’s Slip