It has been conventional wisdom for nearly a year now: whatever Republican flashes-in-the-pan have briefly caught fire, Mitt Romney was the inevitable nominee.
Now the media mavens are bolting in the other direction: Is this guy on the ropes? Can he avoid being knocked out by the free-swinging Newt Gingrich? Not many pundits would bet $10,000 at this point that Mitt survives.
“ROMNEY REELING,” screamed the headline in Sunday’s Huffington Post.
Is it possible the political pendulum—remember when everyone with a press card declared Newt toast last June?—is swinging too far in the other direction? The press performs last rites at the first sign of blood. Journalists wrote off John McCain last time, and he won the nomination. So our collective credibility is a bit suspect at the moment. Politico editor in chief John Harris said on Reliable Sources that the press has a “pro-Gingrich bias” right now because reporters are hungry for a long and colorful race.
Let’s concede the obvious: Romney’s had a year to make the sale and hasn’t been able to get over the 25 percent mark among GOP voters. Many conservatives don’t trust him because of his moderate Massachusetts record. He’s awkward with actual voters. He talks like a cold-eyed management consultant—“Dudley Do-Right in a Kim Kardashian world,” as The Washington Post put it Sunday. He is also, The New York Times declared the same day, “a man exceedingly deft at and devoted to making money who has never become entirely comfortable with his own wealth.” In other words, kinda weird.
What’s more, Romney’s ultracautious campaign, which began trying to run out the clock in the second quarter, has had him hiding out from the press. He was on the cover of Time last week and refused to cooperate with author Joe Klein, whose headline asked: “Why Don’t They Like Me?” Gingrich, by contrast, spoke extensively to Peter Boyer for Newsweek’s new cover story, “The Audacity of Newt.” Romney’s rustiness showed when he got testy with Fox’s Bret Baier for asking a series of perfectly legitimate questions.
But before we relegate the former Massachusetts governor to the ash heap of history, let’s remember a few things.
He is still a plausible president, a seasoned businessman in a period of economic turmoil, a politician who projects a sense of steadiness. Gingrich, with his history of inflammatory comments and self-inflicted wounds, hasn’t passed the commander-in-chief threshold yet. He may at some point, but first he has to withstand the withering scrutiny that comes with frontrunnerdom. Gingrich did a good job of that at Saturday’s ABC debate, while Romney stumbled into offering Rick Perry that $10,000 bet, who said Sunday that five-figure wager proves Mitt is “out of touch with the normal Iowa citizen.”
Romney’s well-financed campaign is also built for the long haul. He has a ton of dough to dump on 30-second spots. If Romney can survive the opening contests, he can win a war of attrition with Gingrich, whose campaign has been a shoestring affair that is just starting to attract volunteers and serious money.
The calendar could be a problem. If Gingrich, who is surging in Iowa, wins the caucuses, Romney would face a do-or-die situation in his semi-home state of New Hampshire, where even a 5-point win would be portrayed in the press as a setback, given his once-gargantuan lead. It is hard to imagine that Romney could survive if he loses the first two contests and then heads to South Carolina, a conservative battleground where Gingrich also has rocketed to the top of the polls.
Newt could self-destruct before that, but waiting for such a meltdown is not a strategy. Romney has been playing not to lose. His commercial boasting of his 42-year marriage (with a debate stumble on the question left in, so the perfectly coiffed candidate will seem less than perfect) is not going to turn the tide, even against a man with three marriages.
What Romney has yet to demonstrate is real passion. What he has yet to demonstrate is that he will fight for the nomination, that he can battle back from a position of adversity. With the rise and demise of Trump, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain, he’s been content to coast. People draw conclusions from a tough campaign that a candidate will fight for them as president—or protect the status quo.
There’s little doubt Romney would be a stronger general election candidate for the GOP than Gingrich. But to get that shot, he has to show what he’s made of. If he can’t do that, the media’s premature obituaries, not long after predicting a coronation, may turn out to be accurate after all.