The question of which Republican candidate would emerge as the more conservative, more preferable alternative to Mitt Romney has loomed over the 2012 primary campaign for months. A passel of potential rivals have either taken a pass (Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin) or self-destructed (Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry). Now, Herman Cain’s spectacularly bungled response to accusations of sexual harassment threatens to torpedo his recent surge, too.
And so, it may come to this: anticipating the rise of Newt Gingrich.
That’s right, the ex-speaker of the House, whose campaign launch was so disastrous that nearly his entire staff bailed after a month, is experiencing a mild comeback. How do we know this? An uptick in the polls and a sprinkling of favorable reviews, most prominently from Gingrich himself. “This will end up being Newt and Mitt,” he sagely predicted in an article in his hometown newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, circulated by his campaign.
We shall see. With just two months before the first contest in Iowa on Jan. 3, the failure of Romney’s rivals to jeopardize his nomination bid is raising questions about whether anyone ever will. “It’s staggering,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “You look at this field, and only one person has been able to put together a competent campaign—and that’s Romney.”
The former governor of Massachusetts still has one big vulnerability: his long and ongoing history of flip-flops and vacillation on issues of passionate interest to many conservative activists: abortion, immigration, and health care reform in years gone by; climate change in the past few weeks.
But Romney is an infinitely better candidate today than he was in his last bid for the White House. Since 2007, he has matured into a tough debater, a disciplined campaigner, and a muscular fundraiser. He has also established a persona that he’s comfortable with: the experienced and competent business executive who can get things done. That’s helped him consolidate support among GOP moderates: A mid-October CNN/Opinion Research poll reported that he had the backing of 35 percent of non-tea party Republicans, a 11-point jump from September.
Even better for Romney, moderate rivals and potential rivals—Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty—have either crashed or stayed out entirely.
“A coach will tell you it’s better to be lucky than good sometimes,” said Warren Tompkins, a Republican strategist based in South Carolina who advised Romney in his 2008 campaign. “A win is a win, no matter how you get it.”
In the latest example of that good fortune, Perry’s glib remarks questioning President Obama’s citizenship overshadowed Romney’s own substantive policy flub last week. He had backed an Ohio initiative to curb union rights months ago, then awkwardly refused to comment on the issue when he was visiting the state, and then finally insisted that he backed it “110 percent” as he campaigned in Virginia the next day. It was a potentially serious fumble, but Perry attracted all the heat with his amateurish quip that “it’s fun to poke” at the president.
Romney avoided the heavy scrutiny typically bestowed on the front-runner again this week, as Cain made a spectacle of himself by feebly swatting at accusations of sexual harassment. Cain’s inconsistent and halting answers not only kept the mess in the public spotlight but also raised more doubts about his preparedness for the national stage.
“There’s all this activity going on, all this noise and dancing around, and there goes Mitt Romney marching toward the finish line,” observed former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
Romney’s shortcomings have been well documented. His signature achievement as Massachusetts governor bears a remarkable resemblance to the health care law that President Obama signed last year. His flip-flops are legendary. And he seems to have hit a ceiling in opinion polls, apparently because many conservatives can’t muster any affection for him.
“Who knows what’s really in Romney’s heart?” asked Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, which promotes conservative religious values. He sounds increasingly resigned, however. “I’m concerned that time is running short,” Scheffler fretted. “There’s a lot of talk about coalescing around another candidate, but whether we can pull it off, I don’t know.”
The list of non-Romney alternatives is getting short. Maybe Gingrich. Maybe Perry. Maybe Rick Santorum?
“With every candidate, there’s a ‘but,’ ” said Chuck Laudner, former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. “People will tell you they like Santorum but don’t know if he can beat the pack. They like Gingrich, but he doesn’t have much of a campaign. They like Perry, but he can’t debate. It’s the same conversation.”
Perry is widely viewed as the most likely foil for Romney because he’s the only other candidate with the money and organization to run a national campaign. But as Perry continues to stumble on the campaign trail—most recently, he gave an unusually loose speech in New Hampshire that triggered questions about whether the Texas governor was under the influence of alcohol or pain medication—the political establishment that hyped his entry is losing faith.
“The window is rapidly closing,” Tompkins said. “The perception that people have of him now as a candidate is really hard to shake. Dealing with scandal like Cain is one thing, but proving you’re up to the job is another. Once you cloud that line, it’s very hard to beat it back.”
As Perry denied that he was drinking or taking drugs, Gingrich sat on the edge of his seat, waiting to surge.
This article appears in the November 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.