… “The concept of one state making or breaking a race for the presidential nomination is nothing new,” writes the estimable Reid Wilson in a realclearpolitics speculative article titled “McCain, Giuliani Like Gephardt, Kerry?”

In 2004, as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean surged in early state polls, former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, whose entire campaign strategy rested on winning Iowa, threw most of his campaign treasury into taking Dean down. The result: Sen. John Kerry, who was viewed as staying above the fray, took Iowa, and with it, began a snowball effect that handed him the nomination.

This year, Romney in many ways parallels Dean. Both former New England governors and viewed as outsiders in their own parties, Dean found then, as Romney does now, that criticizing a party that has lost its way can pay off. Dean criticized fellow Democrats as “Bush-lite,” while Romney, in a recent advertisement, reminds Republican voters that “change begins with us.” Both are well-funded, and both saw themselves rise in early state polls.

Their language, too, bears striking resemblance. At a Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington in 2003, Dean worked the crowd in a frenzy, borrowing a line from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone when he said he represented the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” Last Friday, in Nevada, Romney mirrored the assertion. “Conservatives that have heard me time and again recognize that I do speak for the Republican wing of the Republican Party,” he said.

It remains, it seems, up to John McCain or Rudy Giuliani to disabuse Republican primary voters of that notion, should either hope to break Romney’s lead in New Hampshire.

Giuliani and Romney have skirmished frequently in recent weeks, most prominently on issues of taxes and spending. The two candidates each claim to have cut taxes while accusing the other of raising taxes and fees.

But both Romney and Giuliani have to overcome issues with the Republican base that have little to do with fiscal conservatism. Both have in the past made statements supportive of Roe v. Wade and gay rights, issues on which social conservatives vehemently disagree. Both are now tacking to the right, though Romney’s efforts seem more successful – this week, prominent evangelical leader Bob Jones III, grandson of the university’s namesake, announced he would back Romney.

McCain has come out strongest against Romney’s assertion of himself as the conservative standard bearer. “As we all know, when [Romney] ran for office in Massachusetts, being a Republican wasn’t much of a priority,” McCain told a crowd in Manchester, according to the Associated Press. “In fact, when he ran against Ted Kennedy, he said he didn’t want to return to the days of Reagan-Bush. I always was under the impression Ronald Reagan was a real Republican.”

In fact, McCain noted, Romney has admitted to supporting Democrats in the past, including 1992 Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas and former New Hampshire Congressman Dick Swett.

On Wednesday, McCain continued his assault on Romney, citing a recent debate gaffe as a sign of Romney’s “inexperience” and, when asked whether he meant Romney was too inexperienced to be president, responded, “Sure,” according to an influential South Carolina political blog and The State newspaper.

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden took direct aim at McCain in response: “Governor Romney has run a state and balanced budgets, while other campaigns have only run a Senate office on Capitol Hill or have mismanaged their campaigns to the point that they are mired in debt.”

While Giuliani has the same, if not more severe, problems with conservatives that Romney has, McCain has yet to take serious aim at the New Yorker. Nor has he taken shots at former Senator Fred Thompson, of Tennessee, who began his campaign last month and has been dogged by questions of commitment and ideological purity. But the difference is that McCain counts both men as personal friends; he and Giuliani had dinner late last year to discuss their presidential bids, while Thompson served as McCain’s national campaign co-chair in 2000.

The increasing bitterness of the Republican race, centered around three candidates’ struggles to win New Hampshire, are only likely to get worse in the coming months. The turning point, from running a positive campaign to a comparative campaign, could be an ominous sign for either McCain or Giuliani. As they both train their fire on Romney, one will likely become this year’s version of Dick Gephardt.

The other could become this year’s John Kerry, who stays above the fray, and out of harm’s way, bound onward to a general election.

The emphases are ours, all ours.

We concur with Wilson’s tacit assumption that the Romneys must depart the race. The question then becomes: how and when. We humbly rejoin with the following points and counter-arguments:

1. Patrick Ruffini has also likened Romney to Dean—Ruffini: “Romney’s leads remind me of Howard Dean’s hard-earned leads in those states in 2004″

2. We, OTOH, have likened Romney to an out-of-control Gephardt: Romney’s negative attacks on others and his negatives in the polls–what is the link?

Our point: the Dean-Gephardt story has entered the contemporary canon of political analogy.

3. Any top tier candidate could take out Romney at little or no cost. Conventional wisdom: When your favorables are high, you can go negative, but it will cost you. When your own negatives are high, do not go negative; you may take out your target, but only at the cost of your own viability. Romney’s negatives are frighteningly-historically high. Higher than anyone. Higher than Hillary. Further: Romney is a polarizing figure; independents and Democrats loath and despise him. Evidence:

4. We would contend that no one should lay a glove on Romney just yet. The timing is not right. The Romney candidacy is proving to be useful despite the increasingly remote danger of a Romney presidency—a probability that has receded to the level of a possibility.

The task of the Romney campaign at the moment is to (a) lavishly fund and therefore help develop interest groups, consultants, and party organizations on the right; (b) push other, more viable candidates to the right; (c) dominate the airwaves with Republican messages; (d) compel other candidates to adapt against a hostile terrain dominated by a resource-intensive campaign. These conditions will obtain in the general election, so the candidates had better learn how to cope, and learn how to develop and promulgate a successful message in a hostile media environment.

Contra (b), is Romney really pushing other candidates to the right?—well, no. This is wishful thinking on our part. His influence has been as negligible. But he has allowed other candidates to occupy the moderate ground. It is difficult for someone to accuse you of being extreme if your rival—and basis for comparison—is Romney in his current incarnation. In other words, it is precisely the unequivocal failure of Romney’s caricatured, naive, and un-reconstructed conservatism that has cleared the ground for a newly emerging center-right consensus. (Regard: Would Brownback reach out to Giuliani were it not for Romney?—it is precisely because Romney is so alienating and estranging a figure that he can be marginally useful in indirect and unintentional ways—he brings people together. OK., so he brings people together against him. But he brings them together nonetheless.)

Contra (c), you can just as easily argue that Romney is discrediting Republican messages by association with himself and his campaign. This galls us a little bit, but it is consistent with contra (a).

Even so, at this precise moment we would contend that the Romney campaign is more useful on the life-support of Romney’s personal fortune than it would be dead and gone. Besides: Romney’s consultants, operatives, and hacks—never terribly efficient or effective—have yet to complete the necessary task of separating Romney from whatever wealth Romney is willing to sacrifice to his vanity—hey, everyone’s got to eat!—who are we to begrudge the vultures of a corrupt party establishment their chance at a fat carcass?   

5. Consistent with (4), consider the work that the Romney campaign has already accomplished. It was Romney’s titanic botching of the value voters summit that exposed the internal divisions and contradictions of the Evangelical movement and effectively nuetralized their influence. See:

out-of-touch Evangelical “leaders” stunned by Huckabee upset at the value voters summit—prepared to sigh, shrug, and coronate Romney as their Lord, G_d, and King—oh, the irony! 

6. We further contend: The Romney problem will solve itself according to its own inner logic. This is because of Romney’s over-reliance on direct methods of developing influence, which explains the contradiction of Romney’s non-showing in the national polls yet competitiveness in the early states precisely where Romney has concentrated his spending. We argue the case here:

positioned to fail: Team Romney’s over-reliance on instruments of direct influence and its consequences

Consistent with (5), the Romneys will probably teach the GOP and the conservative movement many painful lessons before they depart the scene. But the lessons themselves will be useful. Moral: No one needs to play Gephardt to someone else’s Kerry. Allow Darwin’s mysterious laws to do their work. On the other hand, it would be highly entertaining and virtually cost-free to the candidate who wants to play Gephardt.

So, weighing the one option against the other, a presumption toward an economy of effort would compel us to advise against moving against Romney. The Romney problem will resolve itself.

yours &c.
dr. g.d.

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