Barnett: “Romney doesn’t have to drop out. He can fight on if he wishes, and hope that he unearths the secret formula that has eluded him so far”
[…] “But the Romney campaign suffered serious and likely mortal wounds last night,” writes the estimable Dean Barnett in a Weekly Standard article titled About Last Night; an easy decision looms
The trouble isn’t so much that John McCain’s delegate lead is insurmountable, although it is significant. And Romney’s problem isn’t that John McCain will get an enormous bounce out of yesterday’s wins. This is the year of no bouncing.
Romney’s problem is that the fully mature version of his campaign has faced the fully mature versions of the Huckabee and McCain campaigns all over the country. Romney hasn’t done well. Although past performances don’t necessarily guarantee the results of future contests, it’s tough to picture what Romney can do to shake up the race and begin getting those extra votes he’ll need in each future state to turn losses into victories.
(1) We concur with Barnett, and we appreciate his candor and precision. As we understand it, Romney’s campaign discovered its voice in MI, and though FL decided for Sen. McCain the Romney campaign still gained valuable experience on the ground; it developed a more sophisticated view of itself and its own role relative to the other campaigns; and it took on and put to useful work new allies, principally, the right wing talkers of talk radio who concerted their efforts against Sen. McCain. It also attempted to clarify and refine its MI Washington-is-broken message into a “anti-insider populist” mission—not just a message, but a mission, however naive or contrived. It is neither a mission nor a message that we agree with, and we still doubt Romney’s alleged and newly acquired commitment to conservative principles, but the fact remains, Romney’s campaign was beginning to become—dare we say it?—effective.
Here be evidence of Romney’s new found effectiveness, as provided by the estimable John Dickerson in a slate.com article titled McCain Not Stopped; But Romney is not seen as a true conservative:
[…] Exit polls nevertheless show that McCain’s problems with conservatives run deep. He lost among conservatives in almost every state except Connecticut and New Jersey, where he split them evenly with Romney. McCain also lost conservatives even in the states he won. Conservatives went for Romney in New York and Illinois. “Hard to do well with conservatives when everyone with a microphone is beating hell out of us,” says a top McCain aide. While the conservative voices weren’t enough to stop McCain, or to elect their guy, tonight they were enough to bruise him […]
Conclusion: Romney was actually beginning to make progress. The conservative base was really beginning to “rally to Romney,” the very outcome that Romney has worked to achieve since Iowa.
(2) The problem: it was all too little and too late. Had super-duper apocalypse Tuesday been three weeks from now, two weeks from now, or even a week from now, Sen. McCain would not be our presumptive nominee and we would be slumping toward a brokered convention with Romney positioned to dominate it.
Also, as Barnett notes, the Huckabee and McCain campaigns had not remained static—they matured and grew more sophisticated too. Though underfunded and un- or under-organized, the two rival campaigns knew how to use their own negatives to good effect, and how to work what little they had to eke out whatever victories they could, and they knew all this from the beginning. And they had also learned how to operate effectively in the shadow of Team Romney, how to position themselves against Romney, and how to turn Romney’s strengths into weaknesses.
Example: Gov. Huckabee and Sen. McCain learned early on that Romney cannot let anything go, even if it costs him a fortune, and even if he ends up looking like an idiot.
- Recall how in Florida Sen. McCain issued a bogus accusation about Romney supporting timetables for US withdrawal from Iraq. Romney for his part behaved as predicted. He repeated Sen. McCain’s charge at every opportunity even as he denied it, and he stressed at great length his own support for the war in Iraq. So the subject in Florida suddenly got displaced from the economy, an issue Romney dominates among upper income Republicans, to the war, an issue that Sen. McCain totally dominates in every category, and the whole exchange cost Sen. McCain’s campaign precisely nothing. But it cost Romney the state of Florida.
- Or recall how back during the struggle for Iowa Gov. Huckabee would provoke Romney on the issue of religion with floating crosses or promises to be a “Christian leader” etc. The result? Romney and his surrogates would go beserk out of all proportion to the stimulus denouncing Gov. Huckabee. Romney for his part would stress his own faith at the cost of calling further attention to his Mormon confession. The effect? Evangelicals were treated to the public spectacle of a super-rich, humorless, android Mormon CEO berating a humble good-ol’-boy joke-cracking Baptist pastor. Romney spent US$10 million on Iowa and lost it to a man who spent almost nothing.
(3) Conclusion: the GOP dodged a bullet aimed straight at its head, only to catch that bullet in the throat, because now Romney has taken on the role of spoiler. See:
Back to Barnett:
Romney doesn’t have to drop out. He can fight on if he wishes, and hope that he unearths the secret formula that has eluded him so far. He can also hang around hoping John McCain makes a blunder. But right now, it’s almost impossible to imagine a path to the nomination for Romney. That being the case, he’ll have to run a campaign that’s cognizant of the fact that he’s facing his party’s likely standard-bearer […]
Now it becomes Sen. John McCain’s task to consolidate the conservative base before Romney can take it from him. Can he do it? We shall see. Romney can no longer win, but he can make sure that Sen. John McCain never wins either.