O Lucky Mitt

Illustration by DarrowPhoto: Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Romney); MGM Studios/Getty Images (Tin Man)

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.

While Romney was gathering steam, all the other Republican candidates were chugging along in Iowa or New Hampshire—all except for Gingrich, that is. And where was he? Back at home in Virginia, watching his wife, Callista, play the French horn in the City of Fairfax Band; signing books in the Mount Vernon bookshop; and mugging for the cameras with a person dressed up as Ellis the Elephant, a character in Callista’s illustrated children’s book.

Gingrich’s bizarro campaign priorities and especially his glaring neglect of Iowa, which is critical to his prospects, raised eyebrows and brought forth harsh criticism from local and national Republicans. Apparently stung, Newt hightailed it back to the state and announced that—following the examples of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum—he would crisscross Iowa on a 44-city bus tour in the days leading up to the caucuses; he also took the opportunity to chastise his rivals for the barrage of negative ads pummeling him over the Iowa airwaves. “It’s candidly very disappointing,” Gingrich tut-tutted, “to see some of my friends who are running who have so much negative junk” to hurl at him.

Put aside the fact that, coming from Gingrich, one of the progenitors of the modern practice of scorched-earth attack politics, this complaint was pretty rich. More important is the fact that his failure to respond in an effective way to the withering assault on his character and record—by Romney’s and Perry’s super-PACS and Paul’s campaign—was almost as damaging to him as the fusillade itself. In the space of two weeks, Gingrich saw his poll numbers in Iowa sliced in half, from the low thirties to the mid-teens, and his standing fall from first place to third or even fourth, behind Paul, Romney, and Perry. Through it all, Gingrich continued to insist that he would run a “relentlessly positive” campaign, and, who knows, given the famous “Iowa nice” proclivities of the Hawkeye State’s electorate, the gambit might yet work. But it was also a sign of desperation, of a candidate so drastically underfunded he has no choice but to stay positive.

“I don’t see any scenario where we’re not the nominee,” says a senior Romney strategist.

All of which brings us back to Romney, whose available resources—between his campaign, his super-PACS, and his personal fortune—dwarf not just Gingrich’s but those of the rest of the field. All year long, the looming question for the former Massachusetts governor and his team was how they would react when faced with a mortal threat. And while the Gingrich surge turned out to be, in the words of John McCain’s 2008 chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, “more of a summer squall than a Cat-5 hurricane,” it was still, quoting Schmidt again, “a threshold test the campaign had to pass if it’s going to win it all.”

In fact, the test for Team Romney came in two parts—and it passed both. The first was whether the Romney operation would and could do what was required to halt, and ideally reverse, Gingrich’s rise. “In any campaign, there are moments where you need to swing the bat and club someone who is a threat,” says a senior strategist for another Republican presidential runner. “It’s easy to talk about but not every candidate or campaign is actually able to do it, and they were. They marshaled their forces, deployed their surrogates, and spent the money necessary to cut Gingrich’s guts out. It’s a credit to their toughness.”

The second test was for Romney himself: Under pressure from Gingrich, would he wet the bed? He did not. “There was that debate where Mitt stood up and said, ‘I’m not a bomb thrower’ ”—in reaction to Gingrich’s incendiary claim that the Palestinians are an “invented people”—“and that showed great discipline and confidence,” says Castellanos, who advised Romney in his previous White House bid. “There were times in 2008 when things got hairy and he went off the rails. But this time, Gingrich didn’t faze him; he didn’t hit the panic button. He’s emerged as a much stronger and more mature candidate.”

Yet Romney has also benefited enormously from forces outside of his control. Given his weakness with the hard-core base and conservatives more broadly—a weakness illustrated vividly by his inability to break through a ceiling on his support in the mid-twenties in national and non–New Hampshire state polling—most analysts expected that, in time, the anti-Romney vote would consolidate around one viable alternative on the right. But, to date, that has not happened, in no small part because the available options have proved serially to be, well, somewhere between faintly and screamingly ludicrous.

“Who would’ve thought that Romney would get to this point without having a crapload of negative ads dropped on his head,” says a veteran Republican consultant. “It’s not like there’s not any material out there to work with, after all. But the other candidates have no money, so they can’t afford even to do the research, let alone pay for the airtime to really hurt him. And then, on top of that, they’re all incompetent, so they’ve wound up splitting the anti-Romney vote and opening up the door for him to win this thing real quick.”

Nowhere has the fracturing of the field been more evident—and more potentially consequential—than in Iowa. In 2008, it was the coalescence of the Evangelical vote around Mike Huckabee that allowed him to whip Romney in the caucuses and in so doing effectively cripple his campaign. This year, however, the Christian right has so far split its support among Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, while at the same time no Establishment challenger to Romney exists. In such a fragmented field, it is possible, and even likely, that winning on caucus night will entail capturing less than 30 percent of the vote. (In 2008, Huckabee won with 34.) And that in turn explains why either Paul or Romney, barring a sudden efflorescence by one of the second-tier candidates after Christmas, has the highest odds of taking the prize—for while both have ceilings on their support, both also have relatively high floors, along with the organizational strength to turn out their supporters.

Either scenario is, of course, great news for Romney. A victory in Iowa by Paul would set up as Romney’s chief competitor going forward a candidate whose views are too far out of line with too much of the Republican Party for him ever to claim the GOP nomination. And a victory by Romney would send him hurtling at breakneck speed into New Hampshire and almost certain triumph there—a result that would more or less hand him the nomination before Republicans in 48 other states have even voted.

If things do indeed unfold this way, Romney will stand as unquestionably the luckiest nominee in modern Republican history—and also the most curious. For most of the year, he floated above the fray, not running for president so much as hovering over the sad and comic spectacle of his rivals’ imploding one by one. It was enough for him to appear presidential. Enough for him to debate well. Enough for him to avoid disaster. Just as in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, in a contest with a bunch of clowns the guy without the funny nose and floppy shoes wins the day. But before Romney and his people get too giddy, they should remember one thing: Barack Obama, for all his flaws and weaknesses, won’t be wearing any greasepaint, either.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

O Lucky Mitt