The Not-So-Weak GOP Frontrunner

Commentary Magazine | Published on

By Peter Wehner

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For a man who is, we’re told, an incredibly weak frontrunner, Mitt Romney is doing a pretty good job disguising himself as a strong one.

The former Massachusetts governor has proven to be an excellent debater. He’s assembled a first-rate team. He can raise a lot of money. And he showed last night that he can give a very good speech. Romney is the only candidate who a majority of conservative and moderate/liberal Republicans nationwide see as an acceptable GOP nominee for president. But most importantly, Romney has shown he can win.

Governor Romney is the first Republican, other than a sitting president, to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s ahead in South Carolina and Florida. And he may effectively lock up the nomination by the end of this month, earlier than any non-incumbent has ever done. The rap on Mitt Romney four years ago was that he did much better in polls than he did in elections. That isn’t the case this year, at least thus far.

Romney has vulnerabilities for sure, all of which have been discussed many times. But in some respects that makes the point, doesn’t it? They exist, but so far, they haven’t cost him.

Remember how RomneyCare was supposed to be political kryptonite in this year’s GOP race? Not so. The line of attack adopted by Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry has reduced them to sounding like a couple of aging Occupy Wall Street protesters. Tim Pawlenty was going to be Romney without the baggage? The Minnesota governor dropped out of the race last August. Romney doesn’t inspire the right wing? Perhaps, but he’s making himself acceptable to it. There is no McCain or Huntsman-like reflex to stick a finger in the eye of conservatives or to speak down to them. And they, in turn, are becoming increasingly comfortable with Romney. And while there’s no question Romney is fortunate he faces such a weak field, that’s not his fault or his doing. All he can do is compete against the candidates who show up. And right now, Romney is dominating them. That counts for something.

Now for the qualifiers: any judgment about Romney as a candidate is, at this stage, preliminary. The voting has barely begun. Political currents can shift suddenly and dramatically (ask Newt Gingrich, who just last month led in the polls by double figures in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida). And particularly if Romney becomes the nominee, he’ll be tested and tested again. Running for president is a brutal process. Among the challenges for Romney will be to resist the temptation to pretend he’s something he’s not, which can easily happen to candidates. Self-knowledge—what you do well and what you don’t; who you are and who you are not—is a priceless gift in politics, as in life itself. My sense is that who Romney is—a very intelligent, able, data-driven, steady, and disciplined man, able to prosecute his case, running as a center-right candidate in a center-right country—is quite enough to reassure Republican voters and, later, the American electorate.

If you look at the political calendar, the GOP primary is a long way from over. Yet if you look at the dynamics of the race so far, and the underlying realities, we may be nearing a denouement. In January. Just weeks after the first vote in Iowa was cast. A full seven months before the GOP convention. We’ll know much more after the January 21 primary in South Carolina and the January 31 primary in Florida. But if what I’ve outlined in fact happens—and it’s certainly in the realm of the possible and getting close to being in the realm of the likely—we can probably all agree that it wouldn’t be a half-bad achievement for an incredibly weak frontrunner.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.