In the space of a few weeks, Mitt Romney has gone from fragile front-runner to possible also-ran to presumed nominee. He’s now back in the tied-to-the-tracks, Perils-of-Pauline phase, as in, OMG, what if he loses his home state of Michigan to Rick Santorum?
Heartburn is way too mild a term to describe what would happen inside Republican circles if Romney—the man bolstered by money, organization, and the GOP establishment—sustains major political damage in Michigan’s Feb. 28 presidential primary. It’s not that he’s a perfect candidate. Far from it. It’s more that the alternatives are worse or nonexistent.
The most obvious Plan B is Santorum, who is surging past Romney in polls after sweeping three contests—but zero delegates—on Feb. 7. The problem is that for some of the same reasons Santorum is doing well in the primaries, he could alienate the moderates who tilt general elections. He is a crusader against gay marriage and abortion, a homeschooler with seven children, socially conservative to his bones. It doesn’t inspire confidence that Santorum lost his 2006 Senate reelection bid in Pennsylvania by 17 points.
Judging by polls, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the other candidates left in the race, are even less viable.
That leaves Republicans searching for another option, even if it’s a political Hail Mary: Recruit someone who is not yet a candidate, such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to enter the race two months after the first votes were cast in Iowa.
A fresh face could renew GOP hopes of ousting President Obama, but practical problems abound. One is that so many deadlines for getting on primary ballots have passed. Only about a dozen states have filing deadlines after March 1, according to Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist and the proprietor of the Frontloading HQ blog about primary-season rules. A late entrant probably wouldn’t even make it onto those ballots. “The sheer amount of organization behind such an effort would be, if not impossible, then very close to it,” Putnam said.
That leaves one last-ditch chance for a late-starter to clinch the nomination: the GOP convention from Aug. 27 to 30 in Tampa, Fla. If none of the existing candidates amasses the 1,144 delegates necessary to win the nomination outright, a latecomer backed by party leaders could swoop in and prevail. The rules governing delegates are loose, and they vary from state to state. Some states, such as Iowa and Colorado, allow delegates to be elected as uncommitted and therefore free to follow their hearts at the convention. Some states tether delegates to a candidate for only one ballot, after which they are free to vote for someone else. The upshot is that a front-runner would not have a guaranteed firewall in Tampa against a Bush, a Daniels, or another party star with the wind at his or her back.
But two factors weigh heavily against such a convention-floor scenario: math and history.
Convention drama is a favorite subject of many political junkies. But there hasn’t been much since 1980, when Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy argued for an open convention that would have allowed him to wrest delegates away from President Carter. Even the bitter, drawn-out primary fight in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to yield any excitement by summer. “We’ve had this conversation in one party or another for forever, and it never comes to fruition,” said David Norcross, a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee.
Beyond that, the candidates who run the primary gauntlet will arrive at the convention with hard-won delegates they likely will resist handing over. They could find allies in the party’s activist wing, wary of the Republican establishment foisting upon them a candidate whom they don’t find acceptable. That resistance to top-down politics makes any convention strategy a long shot. “In America, we draft beer, ballplayers, and, in time of war, soldiers,” said Bill Greener, a GOP strategist. “We don’t draft and men and women to be president.”
There’s also the question of whether any of the people on the sidelines would be stronger candidates than Romney. Bush would be haunted by his name and his brother’s mistakes. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has his New Jersey shtick, but he also has a record on abortion rights and gun control that won’t please conservatives. Daniels, promoted at various times by conservatives such as columnist George Will and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, was part of the George W. Bush administration and likely would be targeted for tremendously underestimating the cost of the Iraq war and reconstruction. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour built a career as a lobbyist, making him another ripe target.
None of them has been through the rigors of a national campaign, from organizing the grassroots to surviving a televised debate. And none of them has indicated a willingness to take the wheel of a bus that could be heading over a cliff.
Kristol, who in December raised the idea of a brokered convention, wrote in January that the window of opportunity for new candidates would shut on Valentine’s Day. He told National Journal in an e-mail that he now foresees a Romney-Santorum race, “and one of them wins.” If they both seem “very problematic,” Kristol wrote, a last-minute entrant could collect some delegates in large, late-voting states such as New Jersey and California. “It seems unlikely to me at this point,” he concluded. “But this year, who can predict?”
Norcross and other political veterans suggest that the Republicans’ best course is to stick with Romney even if he loses Michigan—at least for a week. That would give him seven days to prepare for the first truly national test, the 10 primaries and caucuses on March 6, Super Tuesday. If Romney needs to make a recovery, he has several opportunities to do it that day. Among the contests are Virginia, where he and Paul are the only major contenders on the ballot, and Massachusetts—his other home state.
This article appears in the February 18, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.