If there’s one fact about Mitt Romney’s biography worth knowing, it’s that his father’s presidential ambitions were scuttled by a gaffe. Romney’s father, George, the governor of Michigan, said in 1967 that he had been victim of a “brainwashing” on a tour of South Vietnam where U.S. officials convinced him that the war was the right thing. He was making the point that he had changed his mind and now thought the war was a mistake. But his presidential ambitions were over.
His son, Willard Mitt Romney, has been nearly gaffe-free and determined to stay that way to avoid his father’s mistakes. Steadily, ploddingly, he’s put together a campaign for the Republican nomination that seems unstoppable. He’s the tortoise amidst the hares.
On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Romney also proved a truism of presidential politics--that it helps to have run before. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and John McCain had all lost presidential bids before they became their party’s standard-bearer. If the conventional wisdom holds true, so will the former governor of Massachusetts.
In 2008, during his first presidential bid, Romney looked robotic and insincere. His judgment was askew--for instance, questioning McCain of all people on torture. He lashed out at McCain-style immigration reform and then was caught unprepared when it turned out illegal aliens had been mowing the lawn of his stately suburban home.
But just as Romney had come back from his 1994 Senate defeat to Edward Kennedy to be elected statewide in his adopted Massachusetts, he emerged stronger this time. His honed fundraising machine was even better--likely $20 million this quarter. And although he’s the wealthiest candidate to run for office in recent memory, with assets of more than $200 million, his campaign says he hasn’t put any of his own money into the race.
At 64, Romney is less scripted on the stump, even if it leads to awkward moments like asking people their ethnicity. And he has been luckier this time around. Big party names like Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour stayed out of the race. That left as Romney’s most threatening nationwide competitors Rick Perry, the Texas governor, whose start now sets the gold standard for botched expectations, and Jon Huntsman, his Mormon dynastic gubernatorial doppelganger, who has proven to be more popular with the press corps than with Republicans.
If Romney didn’t find the best way to insert the stiletto into his opponents himself, the political action committees supporting him sure did. A fusillade of ads from Restore our Future felled Newt Gingrich as soon as he rose in the polls, charging him with favoring amnesty for illegal immigrants and reminding Iowa caucus-goers about the former speaker’s “ethical baggage.” Gingrich has started to fight back, but it seems like a weak and belated riposte. Romney is already talking up ad buys in Florida and readying to clear the field. Other rivals, like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, simply self-immolated.
Now the goal is clear: Win New Hampshire. It’s the neighboring state to Massachusetts and expectations of a win will be as high for him as they were for Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and John Kerry. The last Massachusetts Republican to win the New Hampshire primary was Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. He did it in 1964 on a write-in ballot while he was U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. Romney’s ace is a summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee. The state ought to be his.
Romney will have to get past Ron Paul’s libertarianism, which is likely to play well in the “Live Free or Die” state, as well as an energized Rick Santorum. Then there’s Huntsman, who has been lying in wait and inching into double digits in polls. But Romney has a commanding lead in polls of New Hampshire. A decisive win would help seal the perception that he’s the inevitable nominee.
He’ll need that momentum as he heads into more conservative, evangelical South Carolina. And he’ll still have patching up to do on the right among those who question is antiabortion credentials and think his health care plan looks too much like Barack Obama’s.
It hasn’t hurt Romney thus to have been a management consultant whose advice led to jobs being shipped overseas, but it’s going to be a staple of Democratic assaults on Romney and so far his answer--pointing to the office-supply giant Staples and other business successes he’s been associated with--probably won’t engender a sense that he cares about people like you.
Romney comes across as many things--smart and distant, wealthy and sober, opportunistic and competent. In a country reeling from recession and a decade of war, gaffe-free or not, that may not be enough.