Mitt Romney has had the kind of smooth life that makes people want to trip him as he bounds up stairs two at a time. But he has become a steadying presence in a field of Republican presidential candidates who raise the blood pressure -- and not in a good way.
At this week’s debate in New Hampshire, Romney was a mighty oak planted at center stage, with little saplings arrayed around him. In every Republican primary poll, Romney holds a sizable lead. And in a June 7 ABC News/Washington Post poll, the former Massachusetts governor made everyone sit up and notice: Romney led President Barack Obama 49 percent to 46 percent among registered voters. Tea Party heartthrobs Sarah Palin and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced her candidacy June 13, don’t come close.
While other candidates are losing their heads -- Newt Gingrich even managed to lose his whole staff last week -- Romney has kept his down. He is pursuing a carefully calculated stealth campaign made possible largely by the foibles of competitors. The news media are easily diverted, chronicling Palin’s rewrite of Paul Revere’s ride and Gingrich’s vacation cruise to the Greek Isles.
Romney quietly visits voters in coffee shops, diners and living rooms far from the madding crowd. In such small settings he can be charming, like the president of the local Rotary handing out scholarships to A students. In fundraising, he’s the champ, recently collecting pledges of more than $10 million on an especially good day. His message is becoming clearer and more direct: His campaign just produced a boffo ad quoting an Obama speech in which the president cites “bumps in the road” to economic recovery; in the Romney ad, the unemployed are cast as the resentful “bumps.”
Languishing in Polls
By keeping the media occupied, fringe candidates are consuming much of the oxygen that Romney’s more serious competitors need to thrive. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, for example, can’t get enough press coverage to get out of single digits in the polls -- though he should be grateful that reporters were largely distracted last week when he unveiled his economic plan. With bracing simplicity, Pawlenty announced that by boosting economic growth to 5 percent a year for 10 years, instead of the current 1.8 percent, he would generate millions of new jobs and balance the federal budget. Even Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told Talking Points Memo that Pawlenty’s plan is the stuff of fantasy. “The market just doesn’t support that,” he said. “It just doesn’t.”
Pawlenty Versus Bachmann
In Iowa, Pawlenty risks looking ever more flaky as he battles Bachmann, who was born there and born to appeal to its activist base. He can’t out-God, out-gay-bash or out-gun her without straying dangerously far from his origins as governor of a blue state. If the debate, where he declined even to repeat his zinger labeling Romney’s Massachusetts health reform “ObamneyCare,” was the first contest between them, the zesty Bachmann won it in a rout.
Romney, by contrast, has decided to skip Iowa’s straw poll in August, a sign of sanity if ever there was one. The straw poll is a huge money and time suck invented in 1979 to raise funds for the Iowa Republican Party. Its attendees have chosen the eventual Republican nominee only twice in five tries.
Hard-right conservatives will grind their molars and pull the lever for a moderate businessman like Romney -- or even the former Utah governor and ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman -- provided he has renounced abortion, gay rights and, this year, an individual mandate for health care. Independents and moderate Republicans will vote for him in the general election, provided he winked at them in the process.
Likewise Wall Street, which abandoned Democrats for Republicans in 2010, will support a guy who rails against raising the debt ceiling so long as they know he doesn’t mean it. In the United States of Amnesia, the distinction between the positions Romney holds and the positions he claims will be lost in the mists of time, like his suit-and-tie uniform that morphed somewhere along the way into Friday casual.
Romney still has work to do getting right with the right. Yet in the end, even his trouble with “ObamneyCare” may not be fatal.
Tea Partiers don’t hate government nearly as much as they say they do; 70 percent of them support Medicare. And while Romney’s dog whistle to the right is a thin echo of Palin and Bachmann’s primal screams, if polls continue showing Romney alone beating the president, he’ll be poised to rally the Obama-loathing Republican base. In politics, as in marriage, at some point you stop looking for a mythical Mr. Right and decide he’s the one in front of you.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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