Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mitt Romney and the other currency

Slowly but steadily, the drumbeat’s getting louder. It’s the one that the Romney 2012 campaign is spending serious money for, the one that the former Massachusetts governor is sounding to win the war of perception — the war his campaign is fighting to further the idea that he is the presumptive Republican nominee.

If money was the only currency in this battle for the hearts & minds of primary voters, Romney would have already “won.” It’d be all over but the counting of first-place opinion polls in his corner and, starting in January, the counting of votes from Iowa and New Hampshire confirming the idea he’s furiously, if quietly, trying to put across.

But it’s not just about cash on hand. With five weeks before the Iowa caucuses and six before the New Hampshire primary, Romney is pedaling hard on a grade of road that’s occasionally been level, but rarely downhill. And as the Gingrich bid for the nomination has gained recent momentum, Team Romney may be discovering how the M word — Message — counts to the very primary voters he needs to gain the credibility, the validation he’s been seeking for the last four years.

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Romney’s bid for coronation in the primary season started some weeks ago, in comments at various campaign appearances, pithy statements reacting to one policy or proposal from the Obama White House, and in debate performances that managed to be both operationally flawless and emotionally bloodless.

Watching him in the debates, there’s a growing sense of an automaticity kicking in, a reflexive obeisance to the right wing that’s at odds with his earlier, more centrist sensibilities. He really introduced the new hard-line-right model Romney at Tuesday’s debate at Constitution Hall in Washington. And he had company. Judging from the applause for practically all of the candidates at the debate, they may as well have papered the room.

The debate, of course, was telecast by CNN, was also co-sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and attended by any number of conservative Washington insiders, analysts, think-tank jefes and policy wonks. Given the audience, the lofty statements and the generous applause that followed were totally expected. The rightward rhetorical deliveries made by all the candidates were preaching to the amen corner, the equivalent of throwing raw meat into a pit-bull compound.

How all that trademark tough talk and saber-rattling play with a general election audience will be another matter entirely. But for Mitt Romney, there’s work to do with the people of that audience, and maybe more than he thought. The math already suggests that there may be no coronation. He’s going to have to win it. It’s a sound wager that he can. Don’t bet the mortgage that he will.

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Today’s report in The Huffington Post, written by Jon Ward and Mark Blumenthal, is a sound, well-researched analysis of what the Romney campaign faces. Their story points to how Romney needs an early knockout punch in Iowa or New Hampshire — and ideally Iowa and New Hampshire — to really reinforce any idea of having a lock on the nomination.

From the HuffPost story:

“The conventional wisdom has been that the primary will likely be decided on Jan. 31 in Florida, which goes fourth in the series of caucuses and primaries, and is the most expensive contest. Some think Romney could end things in Iowa on Jan. 3 if he wins those caucuses convincingly. Even if he places second or third there but goes on to win New Hampshire on Jan. 10, South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida, many think those victories could create the impression of inevitability.”

But, the story goes on, many of the delegates needed to win the nomination aren’t even up for grabs until later in the primary season.

“Some of the states with the most delegates won't vote until late spring or even as late as the summer,” the report says. “New York and Pennsylvania will award their 95 and 72 delegates, respectively, on April 24. California's mother lode of 172 delegates won't be up for grabs until June 5.”

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A total of 1,143 delegates will be needed to secure the nomination, out of an anticipated total of 2,284, according to HuffPost. Citing information from, HuffPost reported that only 334 delegates will be awarded through January and February, the months Romney needs to win. Super Tuesday, March 6, adds only 599 – “a total of just 41 percent of all delegates.”

And any Romney glide-path scenario assumes that he runs the table, winning all the delegates. Thanks to delegate rule changes made by the Republican National Committee, Texas (with 155 delegates) will divide delegate count based on statewide vote.

The Star-Telegram explained it in October: “If, say, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul equally split the primary vote in Texas next year, then each will get a third of the state's delegates.”

That doesn’t even factor in what awaits Romney between January and the March 6 primary in Texas.

“The February [primary] states are Maine, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and Michigan,” HuffPost reported. “In 2008, Romney won all but Arizona, which was John McCain's home state.

“Yet, mathematically, it will be hard for Romney to argue after January and February that he is the putative nominee.

It’s clear, then, that any talk of Romney pitching a shutout in the four earliest contests may be premature. To top these challenges of the calendar, early and late, he’d have to be Justin Verlander on four days rest.

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The chronological spread of the 2012 primary season could actually work against Romney, depending on gaining those early wins … and on the persistence and power of any rival campaign. Given how crowded the field still is, on the doorstep of December, Romney can probably expect to scrap and claw into the new year and beyond.

As the first caucuses approach, the financially weaker campaigns and the ones showing no traction in the opinion polls (probably one and the same) will struggle to stay afloat. Sooner or later, these bottom-dwellers in the race will drop out.

Whoever’s left after that will be stronger by default. They’ll gain credibility in the eyes of the public and the media by virtue of just being around. They’ll be the beneficiaries of a narrative that places their campaigns in the context of being “in it for the long haul.” At least until Super Tuesday.

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And that works against Romney. The sense of inevitability his campaign hopes to project confronts the thorny problem of voters and key party figures dead set against not just any sense of Romney’s inevitability, but also the candidate himself as the party’s standard-bearer. For them, it's not just a matter of his inevitability. They don't want him around at all.

That’s why he’s still vulnerable. All the offices and interns he’s amassed over four years of constant campaigning, all the organization, all the ground game goes by the boards if the boss can’t bring it in the message department. If that weren’t true, discussions of Romney having to fight for the nomination would be a hypothetical exercise. If that weren’t true, Romney would have been in solid command of first or second place in the opinion polls of the battleground states for the last six months.

HuffPost: “ … [G]iven the strong anti-Romney sentiment still surging through portions of the Republican Party -- combined with the fact that the race for delegates between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in 2008 educated the public and the press about the importance of electoral math over an impression of momentum -- it's questionable whether Romney can clear the field early on and cruise to victory.”

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He didn’t get any help from current events in recent days. On Sunday, the New Hampshire Union-Leader, the influential, genetically conservative newspaper, endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the nomination, in a front-page editorial that some say resets the hunt for the nomination.

“"We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing," the paper said.

"We don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job," the editorial said.

“ … A lot of candidates say they’re going to improve Washington. Newt Gingrich has actually done that, and in this race he offers the best shot of doing it again.”

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A bitchslap like that was, no doubt, easier for Romney to take in the wake of recent opinion polls that show him with a solid lead in polling in New Hampshire, in advance of the first official primary of 2012.

But on Wednesday, Shannon Travis at CNN reported that the representatives of four leading Iowa social conservative groups — Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, The Family Leader, the group Iowa Right to Life, and the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America — met in secret last Monday in Des Moines to discuss ways to identify and support a Republican presidential candidate who can stop Romney’s advance in the state.

“The idea: avoid splintering the conservative vote in the state by rallying around one GOP rival who could win Iowa's Jan. 3 caucus and then challenge Romney in New Hampshire and the other early voting states,” Travis reported. Another such meeting’s planned for this coming Monday.

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Right about now, Romney might be justified in throwing up his hands and wailing “where is the love?” But much of this uncertainty among Republicans is his own doing. His serial infidelities with message and principle, the “flip-flopper” accusations that won’t die. And let’s not even get started on the Obama health-care law and its undying similarities to the one he spearheaded in Massachusetts. For these reasons, conservative Republicans still harbor deep reservations about Romney. And that won’t magically disappear.

Mitt Romney spent somewhere between $35 million and $40 million on his 2008 presidential campaign. Since checks for the 2012 race are still being cut at a furious pace, it’s anyone’s guess how deep he’ll reach into his own pockets this time.

But the likelihood of a protracted fight for the nomination suggests the currency he really needs is something he can’t get at the bank. It’s the currency of being genuine. For voters in January and February, that may be more important than anything money can buy.

Image credits: Romney: CNBC. Romney 2012 logo: Romney for President. 2012 primary calendar: Frontloading HQ ( Gingrich endorsement: ©2011 New Hampshire Union-Leader. Romney bottom: NBC News.

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