Romney Being Romney
As Ian noted in his Instant Analysis last night, the question coming out of Michigan is whether Romney can solidify his front-runner status and get the party to accept his inevitability by winning Super Tuesday, particularly in Ohio. I lean toward “no.” As crazy as this race has been, it has followed something of a pattern: every time voters have been given a chance to ratify the choice of the people who voted before them and give some clarity to the race, they have chosen not to. After Romney tied Iowa and won New Hampshire, the voters of South Carolina could have all but handed him the nomination. Instead, they went convincingly for Gingrich. The voters of Florida then could have confirmed the base’s rejection of Romney and sent the GOP establishment into panic mode by establishing Gingrich as the frontrunner, but instead they voted convincingly for Romney. Swap out Gingrich for Santorum, and you see the same pattern in Minnesota/Missouri/Colorado and Michigan/Arizona. While I don’t expect that pattern to repeat itself all the way to the convention—at some point the conservative base will cry uncle and accept that Romney is the guy—there’s enough skepticism about Romney to delay the coronation for at least a few more weeks.
One other pattern to this campaign is that whenever Romney has just or is about to win a major victory, he sullies it by reminding everyone why they don’t like him. The day before the New Hampshire primary delivered his line about liking to fire people. The morning after Florida, he said he doesn’t care about the very poor. This time, he started a little earlier with a pair of car-related gaffes feeding his clueless rich guy image. Speaking to 1,200 people and 65,000 empty seats at Detroit’s Ford Field, Romney tried to connect to the car culture of Michigan by noting that among his family vehicles, his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.” On Sunday, when asked whether he watches NASCAR, Romney said he isn’t an ardent fan but has “some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.” (When I first saw this line tweeted, I was certain it was a joke. And it would have been a remarkably well-crafted joke, playing on Romney’s wealth, his awkward attempts to connect to blue-collar conservatives, and the tired “some of my best friends are . . .” line.)
The line that may hurt Romney the most in the long run was his line yesterday morning about his rivals jumping in the polls simply because they say incendiary things about President Obama. I’d been surprised by Romney’s seeming unwillingness to call out Santorum’s more extreme rhetoric. While it makes sense given Romney’s own tenuous standing with conservatives, there are issues, like contraception and public schools, on which Santorum’s rhetoric not only makes him seem unelectable but puts him to the right of most Republicans, presenting Romney with opportunities to paint Santorum as dangerous to the party while affirming his own conservative stances. Instead, Romney chose to attack Santorum’s extreme rhetoric in a way that’s more insulting to voters who would support Santorum (or Trump or Bachmann or Perry or Cain or Gingrich) than to Santorum himself.
Bottom line: Romney is in a better position today than he was on Monday, but he’s still Mitt Romney. Expect Republicans to give a couple more looks to Santorum and Gingrich, and continue to pine for a white knight, before this thing gets settled.