MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. -- In a presidential nominating contest dominated by shooting stars who burn bright but briefly, it may be the most consistent, if less thrilling, Mitt Romney who proves most resilient.
Former pizza company executive Herman Cain performed well in an early debate and ascended to double digits in some national polls. Rep. Michele Bachmann won the summer, and the Iowa straw poll, but faded as questions about her ability to beat President Obama loomed. Now, six weeks after he began his bid, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is stumbling, both in a debate this week and in a Florida straw poll for which he campaigned overtly.
If they are the political hares, Mitt Romney's tortoise seems to be catching up
Romney began the campaign as the odds-on front-runner, the most experienced candidate in a weak field and the contender best able to put together both an experienced team and a robust bank account. But questions over health care reform he signed into law in Massachusetts have lurked like a stalking cat, and the media has been more interested in newcomers. That made Romney's lead look shaky, destined to come tumbling down the moment an anti-Romney candidate coalesced his rivals.
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That moment has seemed to come several times -- when Cain vaulted up the polls, when former candidate Tim Pawlenty debuted the phrase "ObamneyCare" in a Fox News interview, when Bachmann overtook Pawlenty as Romney's most threatening foe, and virtually the moment Perry stepped onto the scene.
And yet, after all those threats, Romney has proven that those arrayed against him have not decided on a single candidate around whom to unite.
The high-stakes, high-pressure environment of a presidential campaign, and the intense interest Republican primary voters have in finding a candidate they believe in who can also defeat President Obama next year, has fueled the stellar rises and cataclysmic falls of a number of candidates. Perry's rocky debate performance in Orlando on Thursday raised further doubts about his readiness for prime time. Bachmann has become a virtual after-thought in the polls. Though Cain won a straw poll conducted by the Republican Party of Florida, he did so with help from Romney advisors, who schemed to deny Perry a win, sources told National Journal.
And though Romney's team professed not to be involved, their candidate handily won a straw poll of Republican activists at the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders and conducted by The Hotline.
Romney has deep ties to Michigan, to be certain. He was raised in Bloomfield Hills; his father, George, served as chairman and CEO of American Motors Corporation and as the state's governor. But Perry is the hot new candidate, and even in Michigan activists seemed more excited to hear his speech. Perry's lunchtime address drew a standing room-only crowd; Romney's dinnertime address had empty seats.
Despite a higher level of interest, activists weren't swayed by Perry's fiery address. Romney won over 51 percent of the straw poll attendees, well ahead of Perry's 17 percent second-place showing. Cain finished with 8.5 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul won 7.7 percent. No other candidate won more than 4 percent of the vote.
Perry's stump speech, heavy on rhetoric that appeals to the base and a glowing review of his tenure as Texas's governor but light on specific proposals were he to make it to Washington, added a new pitch in which he painted himself as the most electable candidate. But the lack of policy detail makes a stark contrast when Perry's stump speech stands next to Romney's, which comes complete with a seven-point plan to fundamentally rebuild the American economy. Romney pauses to allow an audience to applaud; Perry tries to finish his point, even if it's drowned out.
And though Perry has begun making the case that he is the most electable, that's something Romney has argued for months. "The president is unprepared. He just didn't understand how the economy really works," Romney said Saturday evening. "My experience was in the private sector."
Romney is poised for more good news that could further cement his status as the resurrected front-runner: The year's third quarter comes to a close Friday night, after which presidential campaigns must file reports with the Federal Election Commission detailing their financial hauls. Romney raised about as much during the year's second quarter as the entire rest of the Republican field. Barring a major splash by Perry's fundraising team, which had just seven weeks between his announcement and the end of the quarter, Romney will again lead the field.
His challenges remain; opponents still attack Romney relentlessly for his Massachusetts health care plan. Many ideological conservatives in Washington and in key early primary states still hold negative views of his sometimes-nebulous commitment to their pet issues. And he appears willing to cede contests in Iowa and South Carolina, states in which he barely has a presence, giving opponents a chance to build momentum. Perry, meanwhile, has been by no means eliminated from the contest; he remains Romney's most potent rival.
And yet, with at most four months before the first nominating contests, time for Romney's opponents grows short. If the anti-Romney crowd cannot pull together, his experience, skill and fundraising prowess still appear to be enough to claim the Republican nomination. Romney's slow and steady pace has left him plodding past the exhausted hares who once threatened his chances.