As late as Thanksgiving, I was convinced not only that Mitt Romney would win the Republican presidential nomination, but that he also stood a reasonably good chance of beating the Democrats in the general election. Since then, the former Massachusetts governor has done everything in his power to prove me wrong. As we reach Christmas Day, 2007, Romney faces the growing prospect of losing both the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary. Should that occur, he will almost certainly join his dad, who failed in 1968, as yet another footnote in the annals of promising campaigns that fizzled long before the swallows returned to Capistrano.
Given that some of you actually thought that Fred Thompson was going to win, I really shouldn't have to defend myself, but I will anyway. Here's what I figured: John McCain would get pummeled on the immigration issue. Check. Rudy Giuliani would find himself, at long last, unable to outrun the shadow of his own myriad scandals. Check. Thompson's much vaunted charisma would dissipate as soon as he stopped reading from other people's scripts. Check. Mike Huckabee, though superficially appealing, would emit extremist vibes that would be picked up and luxuriated over by the national media. Check. Sam Brownback's, Tom Tancredo's, and Duncan Hunter's candidacies would exist primarily in their own minds and they would never venture outside the precincts of single-digit obscurity. Check, check, and check.
Romney, then, stood to benefit from this process of elimination. Voters uneasy with the candidate's Mormonism would ultimately choose principle over prejudice and throw in with the candidate whose views on the issues, at least this time around, were consistently and unfailingly conservative. The GOP base would conclude that Romney never really meant all those things about abortion and gay rights that he said back in Massachusetts. He simply did what he had to do to fool the liberals and capture the governorship of the only state that voted for George McGovern in 1972. He did, after all, put up a fierce fight against gay marriage during his final days in Boston.
So what went wrong? Well, first it turned out that Romney, who had the good looks of a department store mannequin, also possessed the mannequin's personality. Even his jokes sounded scripted and he delivered each bon mot with the sincerity of a second-year high school drama student. During the presidential debates, his Spock-like demeanor contrasted badly with Giuliani's nervous intensity, McCain's calm frankness, and Huckabee's Gomer Pyle witticisms. Romney was the cold political calculator selling, more than anything else, a clear-eyed, bloodless competence. In the end, he evoked unflattering memories of an earlier Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis.
Still, as a rich and stable man in a poor and often unhinged field, Romney remained in a strong position in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. He and Giuliani competed for the frontrunner tag, and most pundits assumed that the two would ultimately face their big showdown in South Carolina or Florida. Romney, opposing a twice-divorced Catholic, decided that his Mormonism required no explanation even to the millions of Christian conservatives who regarded his faith as heresy at best and cultish at worst.
And then along came Mike Huckabee.
The former Arkansas governor, on the strength of standout debate performances, cute advertisements, and good press, started to rise in both the Iowa and New Hampshire polls. If nothing else, Huckabee's ascendance made clear that Romney had not yet closed the deal with evangelicals. The Mormon murmurs increased and suddenly the airwaves were abuzz with damaging dissections of the church's teachings. Romney quickly shelved his previous strategy of don't ask, don't tell and decided it was time to give The Speech.
I have already commented on the candidate's address at the Bush Library in College Station, Texas, so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that Romney badly misjudged his target audience. The candidate barely addressed Mormonism per se, indeed only mentioning the church by name on one occasion. Instead, he delivered a largely boilerplate speech, laden with clichés about family and marriage and patriotism, evidently dedicated to persuading the religious right that he shared their various prejudices. And indeed he did share them, all but one.
Only Mitt Romney seemed not to understand that his mandate on that December morning was not to pander, but to reassure. He needed to demystify the Mormon Church, explain what his faith meant to him, and turn attention away from the controversial 19th Century teachings and toward the thriving, modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that exists today. The fact that he didn't do so was unhelpful; the fact that he appeared to be consciously avoiding doing so was devastating.
Having blown this opportunity, Romney not only allowed Huckabee to gain on and finally pass him in Iowa, he also somehow opened the crypt and permitted John McCain once more to walk among the living. Romney's response to this sudden burst of ill-fortune has been shrill and ineffective. One day, he loudly demands that Huckabee apologize for daring to suggest that President Bush's arrogant foreign policy is arrogant. The next, he attacks John McCain for having changed positions on the question of tax cuts, inexplicably bringing the issue of flip flopping back to the front burner.
More than anything else, though, the loss of frontrunner status seems to have deprived Romney of the glowing self-confidence that had been his greatest strength. Rather than humanizing him, the candidate's attacks on his surging opponents have only served to make Romney seem colder and more petulant. Like Dukakis before him, Romney, a candidate without ideological anchor, seems unable to emerge from his first serious skid. But at least Dukakis managed to win his party's nomination before spinning irreversibly toward oblivion.
To be fair, Romney may still emerge as the Republican nominee. The GOP field remains weak. Mike Huckabee is not reacting well to his initial weeks in the white-hot spotlight. Rudy Giuliani may be permanently tarnished by his ethical difficulties. John McCain must still survive the immigration dead-enders who dominate his party's base. Fred Thompson continues to sleepwalk and mumble.
But even if he does survive, Romney is no longer the formidable contender that he appeared to be two or three months ago. He may yet be the man that Hillary and Obama most fear. But they almost certainly don't fear him as much as they once did.
UPDATE: Welcome to all of you who are visiting this site for the first time. There's a lot of Election '08 commentary on the main page and in the archives. Please indulge. I'll be back to respond to comments this afternoon (last minute shopping calls away me right now). I hope you'll return often.