While I’m not yet ready to strap on a bib and sit down for a meal of crow, I will confess that recent trends have me beginning to question my year-long assertion that Mitt Romney really was every bit as inevitable as he would still like us to believe. The “conventional wisdom” would have us believe that Rick Santorum was destined to rise and fall, just as so many of he predecessors did, leaving the field clear for Mitt to sweep up the pieces and slide into home. (By this time you might think I’d learned that the conventional wisdom is frequently neither.) But on the heels of his fairly super Tuesday on February 7th, the pesky Santorum appears to be thumbing his nose at political geniuses and stubbornly holding on to a slim lead in Michigan. (Or possibly a tie, depending on whom you ask.)
While we’re not talking about a huge number of delegates (which will be apportioned out among two or three people in any event), it’s difficult to brush off the impact that the Great Lakes State will have on Romney’s chances. Given his family history there, even a victory which allows Santorum to come within a few points could be nearly as bad as a loss. Such an outcome would continue the burgeoning storyline that Santorum is for real. If we’ve learned anything from past cycles, it’s that in politics, perception always trumps reality. If you can manage to change the perception, reality will follow along in short order. A growing national confidence in Santorum’s chances will lead to more money and endorsements being showered upon him, leading to a very real improvement in his prospects.
But what brought Mitt to this sorry state of affairs? A portion of the blame actually lies beyond his control. When headlines begin appearing which read ‘”Improving economy a blow to Romney” — then, he’s got a problem. No sooner did Romney give a speech on how bad the economy was doing than a positive jobs number hit the news cycle. Before he can make it even two blocks from the podium where he decried the bailout of GM as a colossal failure, the auto giant posts one of their best profit numbers in years. It’s as if the gods of economics and news rooms were conspiring to nominate Rick Santorum.
But some of the fault lies with Romney himself. Rather than making a bold argument as to why he would be the superior choice, Mitt has delivered one awkward moment after another, leaving even his most devoted supporters scratching their heads. While attempting to explain how he is a good fit for Michigan voters, he fell back on claiming that he loves cars. Oh, and trees, too. They are apparently “just the right height” in Michigan. He is also, it turns out, a big fan of lakes as well. The stammering laundry list of nifty things he admires about Michigan went on for longer than I could bear watching.
I’m not coming out as some sort of spokesman for the anti-tree, car-trashing, lake-draining lobby here, but you’re going to have to do better than that.
It is either ironic or depressing that Romney — at least for the time being — needs to count on bad economic news for the country if he is to gain traction selling himself as the ultimate businessman who is here to assuage the nation’s fiscal woes. The “good news” for Mitt is that there is still a long road to travel until November and projections of a rosy future in America may be premature. If the smoldering Greek Fire turns into a full blown conflagration and its effects make it across the pond, things may still turn on a dime. This could sour the nation’s recently rekindled love affair with President Obama and open the door for the GOP a smidgen wider.
The bad news for Team Romney is that he doesn’t have that lengthy runway to work with in terms of securing his place as the man who will actually face Obama in the general election. It’s true that he could still turn things around with a big showing on March 6th, leaving all of these Santorum guessing games as little more than an embarrassing interlude in the punditry world. But if the poorly funded and frequently disorganized former senator continues to fire up the imagination of the base and scores big on Super Tuesday, the game may well be close to over for Mitt before he ever has a chance to build up a head of steam.
Perhaps he can get the campaign car back in gear by tying Rick Santorum to The L Word. (Lobbying is still something of a dirty term in conservative circles.) It would at least be more productive than trying to attack him from the left on abortion, or suggesting that some women could do better in terms of family planning than holding aspirin between their knees. In any event, Mr. Romney is going to need to come up with something to either bolster his own appeal or knock Rick Santorum down a few notches. And whatever he rolls out needs to be better than arboreal observations and a love of automobiles or large bodies of water.