NASHUA, N.H.--For months, Mitt Romney has campaigned under the ignominious cloud of being called one of the most fragile front-runners the Republican Party has seen in decades. Not anymore.
The first nonincumbent Republican contender to notch back-to-back wins in the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses sent a powerful message on Tuesday. By winning a state in New England known for its independent streak and--albeit much more narrowly--a caucus dominated by evangelical Christians in the rural Midwest, Romney proved he’s a national contender.
With polls suggesting he’ll extend his winning streak into the next nominating contests in South Carolina and Florida, the question is not so much whether Romney will be the nominee, but how long it will take his rivals to give up.
Romney paid lip service to South Carolina in his victory speech to supporters in Manchester, but his eye was on November. President Obama has run out of ideas and excuses, he said, and asked voters to help him "make 2012 the year he runs out of time."
There are challenges ahead, but none that appear to be insurmountable. South Carolina will test the appeal of a Mormon, former Massachusetts governor in a Southern state heavily influenced by the Christian right. A super PAC bankrolled by Newt Gingrich’s allies says it will spend $3.4 million in the state attacking Romney as a ruthless corporate raider. Rick Perry, who’s been in South Carolina since Sunday, is also bashing Romney’s record as a venture capitalist (or "vulture capitalist," in Perry's phrase). South Carolina’s depressed economy could prove fertile ground for the populist line of attack.
But even after a possible setback in South Carolina, Romney would be well positioned to rebound in Florida, where he is only candidate airing television ads and the only one who can afford to do so. Even Ron Paul, who raised $13 million in the past three months, said he can only afford to spend "limited'' money in the costly, fourth-largest state.
“Even under the worse scenarios for Romney, I don’t think he’s capable of making any mistakes that would mortally wound him in the primary,’’ said Jamie Burnett, who worked as Romney’s political director in New Hampshire in 2008. “He’s built a large organization and a professional infrastructure that is national in scope and can sustain him through any ups and downs of these early contests.’’
Still, clinching the nomination may take a while. New Republican Party rules will make it harder for a candidate to quickly amass enough delegates, because states that vote before April 1 must award them proportionally. Some of Romney’s rivals--particularly Paul--don’t look like they’re going away any time soon and could siphon enough delegates away to keep the race going. None of Romney’s competitors, however, has demonstrated the ability to build a broad-based conservative coalition that could pose a real threat to his sturdy base of more secular, moderate support.
“This is a war of attrition,’’ said Corey Lewandowski, New Hampshire director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. "A divided field suits Governor Romney very well…. The race right now is for second place.’’
Romney’s commanding position is due to his strength as a candidate but also to the weaknesses of his competitors and the failure of GOP voters to unite behind one of them. The absence of a breakout rival was evident in a memo circulated by the Romney campaign on Tuesday that pointed out how the other candidates, save Paul, failed to qualify for the ballot or submit a full slate of delegates in a number of states. Gingrich, for example, lacked enough signatures to appear on the ballot in Virginia, a key swing state in the general election. “It begs the question of if these candidates are really national or just regional candidates,’’ campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in the e-mail.
Romney’s rivals are caught in a vicious cycle. Without a strong national organization and steady influx of cash, they are hard-pressed to defeat Romney at the polls. And if they can't defeat Romney at the polls or at least come close, that cash flow will never come.
“For them to continue to raise money and show they’re viable, they’re going to have to beat him somewhere and beat him in more than one place,’’ Burnett said. There’s no Hillary Clinton to the Barack Obama in this race.’’
An abundance of competence--and a lack of it on the part of his competitors--is what’s propelling Romney toward the nomination. Casting about for leadership since Obama’s election in 2008, the Republican Party may have found its new standard bearer by the process of elimination.
On Sunday, Romney went straight from yet another nearly flawless performance in a nationally televised debate to a campaign event in Rochester. Kid Rock’s anthem “Born Free’’ was playing as he stepped on stage. Home free was more like it. Still, the audience in the packed theater was relatively subdued, applauding in polite admiration for the successful, good-looking businessman on stage.
“You can tell he has very high standards,’’ said Robert Charest, a 59-year-old resident of Dover who attended the rally. “I was kind of embarrassed by the other choices.’’