Don’t you dare call Mitt Romney the front-runner.
Sure, he’s got the money, the organization, the best-selling book, and the hair. In national polls of possible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Romney is at or near the top. Perhaps most important, he has run before. Paid his dues. Been to the rodeo.
Ask anybody: If there is a front-runner in the race, it’s Romney. Of the other potential contenders who could be labeled as leading the pack, Sarah Palin is too divisive, the thinking goes, while Mike Huckabee can’t put enough money together. (By the way, does a guy planning to take a weeklong cruise to Alaska in June act like he’s running for president?)
Yet in the same Romney-is-the-front-runner breath comes this: It’s too early to make predictions. The race is totally fluid. Anything can happen.
In other words, Romney is the front-runner for a nomination that nobody assumes he’ll win.
No need to ask why. His problems are well documented. Fiscal conservatives cringe at parallels between the former governor’s health care program in Massachusetts and President Obama’s federal plan. Social conservatives wince at Romney’s flip-flops on abortion, gun control, immigration, and gay rights, and, privately, at his Mormonism.
All of which make Romney a very different kind of Republican front-runner. He’s not a commanding leader of the pack like Ronald Reagan in 1980, who could afford to sit out straw polls and candidate forums. He’s not George H.W. Bush, a sitting vice president climbing atop the ticket in 1988. He’s not Bob Dole, the GOP’s elder statesman, making his third bid for the presidency in 1996. He’s not the financial and organizational juggernaut that was George W. Bush in 2000.
Romney stands on the precipice of the race looking more like one of the equivocal Democratic front-runners of the 1980s—say, Gary Hart before the Monkey Business episode—a candidate whose strengths appear almost evenly matched by his weaknesses. Republicans share a widespread sense that the 2012 race has been unusually long in taking shape. That may be largely because no one can quite figure out whether they believe the man nominally at the head of the line can defend that position once voters weigh in.
“The prevailing theme for this cycle is, ‘Who will be the last man standing?’ ” said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, a top Romney adviser in 2008. “Nobody wants to set themselves up as a target for the media and their opponents, especially if you’ve been around the track before. Let the other guy step to the front of the line.”
“WE’RE IN NO HURRY”
A strong case can be made for Romney’s candidacy—when he’s ready to start making it. The team behind Romney’s Massachusetts-based political action committee, Free and Strong America, says little on the record these days. I took them up on a vague lunch invitation, flying from Washington to Boston just for the day, and was politely asked to put my notebook away.
Campaign operatives frequently try to talk reporters into stories or out of them. The Romney team, for now, is curiously low-key.
“I’m not interested in ginning up 2012 stories,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s traveling press secretary for the 2008 campaign and a former newspaper reporter. “The big lesson we learned from last time was that we got started too early. We’re in no hurry to announce our plans.”
Sitting next to Fehrnstrom at a trendy downtown restaurant was Matt Rhoades, Romney’s former communications director, who had even less to say. Rhoades was a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and research director for President Bush’s reelection in 2004. Pressed repeatedly to talk about the shape of the race, Rhoades deferred to Fehrnstrom: “There is no race. There are no candidates. How can you know who the front-runner is?”
Indeed, the most recent Gallup Poll shows a statistical tie between Huckabee at 18 percent and Romney and Palin at 16 percent apiece. A dozen other potential candidates logged single-digit ratings. Herman Cain, a former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, is the only relatively prominent Republican officially in the race.
“I can’t remember a time in Republican politics when the field was this wide open,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Even as he delays an official campaign launch, Romney is working diligently to court donors (he raised $6.3 million in his state and federal accounts last year), map out a campaign strategy, and sculpt his image. In one recent week, he made an unannounced stop at a NASCAR race wearing a sportsman’s fishing shirt; penned a National Review column assailing Obama’s policy toward Israel; and sent a $5,000 donation from his PAC to the Wisconsin GOP to show support for Gov. Scott Walker’s standoff with public-employee unions.
This article appears in the March 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.