There are two partial exceptions to this pattern. One is Newt Gingrich—but even he has not held office since 1998, when he resigned as House speaker amid a revolt from fellow Republicans over his mercurial management style. The other is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose unwavering social and fiscal conservatism and biting rhetoric probably best positioned him for the part but whose initial performances showed him ill-prepared for such a big stage.
For many Republicans, none of these alternatives crossed the threshold as a credible president. At a Romney rally in the Rochester, N.H. opera house last Sunday, Jeff Hilke, a Portsmouth day trader, seemed almost perplexed when asked why he had chosen Romney over his rivals. “He is just far beyond any of the other candidates—he comes across as very presidential,” Hilke says. “It’s nice the media is portraying Gingrich or Santorum as plausible nominees, but I just don’t see it. Good guys, good messengers, but I just don’t see a president there.” In both the Iowa and New Hampshire exit polls, Romney easily carried voters who said their top concern was electability.
Romney’s rivals faced another big hurdle. Apart perhaps from Perry and Bachmann, each of whom quickly faded, none has emerged organically from the ferocious antigovernment backlash that emerged during the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and then erupted early in Obama’s. None of the heroes of that movement—from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—felt ready to run in 2012, either because they were too young or too recently elected, or both. Other veteran Republicans potentially attractive to those voters also passed, including Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Republican voters were left to choose from a field filled by an older generation that many of the newer activists view with suspicion. “In the next primary election, whenever it is, you’ve got a real group of potential candidates who are truly conservative and pro-growth,” says Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a leading economic conservative group. “It is an evolution. Republicans went bad, and now [the movement] is getting better, and it’s going up through the House and Senate, but it hasn’t produced a national leader yet.”
Largely because of this generational mismatch, all of the remaining contenders faced their own doubts from a conservative movement already inclined to distrust the party’s leadership. From the 1990s through Bush’s second term, many Republicans tried to reach beyond conservative circles to court new constituencies with center-left positions on issues such as immigration, climate change, and health care reform. But the conservative backlash that exploded under Obama has produced a back-to-basics demand in the GOP that has rendered those views uniformly suspect. That has compelled not only Romney but also Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Tim Pawlenty (before he quit the race) to renounce or apologize for an extended list of earlier beliefs. Even Perry was stung by his embrace of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants—an idea that was not nearly so controversial when he signed it into law.
Romney’s own apostasies (such as support for an individual health care mandate) seemed less conspicuous against the backdrop of these other ideological blemishes. Once Perry imploded, none of Romney potential rivals stirred genuine passion among the institutional or grassroots Right. The Club for Growth’s economic “white papers” on the field reeked of disappointment not only with Romney but also Gingrich, Santorum, and Huntsman. “Everybody asks themselves that question—why don’t we have an obvious choice that everyone can get solidly behind and get enthusiastic about?” says Chocola, a former House member from Indiana. “I wish I had that answer.”
That division helped Romney win Iowa last week despite his meager performance with tea party and evangelical Christian voters: Conservatives fragmented their votes across all of the alternatives—Santorum, Paul, Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann. Since then, the Right has made little progress toward coalescing. While The Weekly Standard cheered Santorum’s breakthrough, and conservative activist Gary Bauer endorsed him, The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial pointedly questioning his economic plan and Erickson at RedState flatly denounced him as a “Big Government conservative.”
After Romney’s resounding New Hampshire win, his critics recognize that any last-ditch hope of stopping him will require rapid consolidation around a single conservative opponent. But that seems even less possible after the most likely rallying points—Santorum, Gingrich, or Perry—turned in such dismal showings in the Granite State. The highest-profile attempt to forge a united front is the social-conservative gathering this weekend in Texas. One participant, however, says the same disagreements that have prevented unified action so far will likely doom this attempt as well. “I think it will be a useful meeting,” the participant says, “but I would be very surprised if there is consensus.”