So argues Kimberly Strassel in today’s Wall Street Journal, where it probably … won’t convince many people who aren’t inclined to give Mitt Romney a shot anyway. Strassel argues that Romney has improved as a candidate in both message and organization, and has had a good bit of luck behind him as well:
The governor lost the nomination in 2008 because of his lack of focus and a reputation for conveniently shifting message. Let’s just say he learned something.
Throughout this campaign, he’s resisted scattershot criticism of rivals, instead carefully pinpointing his biggest threats from the right and homing in on their biggest weaknesses. With Mr. Pawlenty, that job was relatively easy. Mr. Romney stepped back to allow the Minnesotan to implode, his restraint even earning him praise as “presidential.”
A greater insight into the Romney machine came with Mr. Perry, whose threat resided in his broad credentials with a conservative audience. Mr. Romney’s response was to target a relatively obscure liability—Mr. Perry’s modest policy of letting young illegals pay in-state college tuition—and then to elevate it and tear it apart. Romney ads were brutal, comparing Mr. Perry to Barack Obama and Mexican President Vicente Fox on immigration, suggesting that the Texas governor would open the illegal floodgates. It proved a deal killer for many conservatives.
Next up was Mr. Gingrich, whose December surge, particularly among tea party voters, posed a late-game threat. Team Romney was quick to drill into its rival’s “tons of baggage,” including marital infidelity, the money he accepted from Freddie Mac and, again, the accusation that he supports “amnesty for illegal aliens.” Between these and other attack ads, Mr. Gingrich’s support was halved in little more than a week.
Strassel cites his message discipline as the biggest improvement:
Mr. Romney has taken positions and stuck with them, even if it has meant defending the likes of RomneyCare. In Iowa, New Hampshire and everywhere else, voters have heard—again, and again, and again—the same two messages: He has the business and management experience to competently turn around the country, and he is the most electable against Mr. Obama.
Romney got lucky, Strassel argues, with the decisions by other potential candidates to sit out this cycle. Hugh Hewitt doesn’t see that as luck, but as a rational calculation based in part on the strength of Romney:
Each of those might have won the nomination, but each of them made a calculation that they would not run, and Romney’s formidable skills as a candidate had a lot to do with the field being cleared. Those GOP voters who would have preferred one of the above to run are not going to be as enthusiastic about Romney as they would have been had their own preferred candidate had run, but clearing most of the field of most of the formidable opposition tells us something of Romney’s strengths as perceived by his strongest competitors. They didn’t want to get in the ring. Many had very good reasons not to, but they are professionals, and professionals know when to fold the hand.
Perhaps a better demonstration of Romney’s improvement as a candidate comes from the Boston Herald, which highlights Romney’s changed approach to Iowa. In 2008, Romney competed hard for the caucuses, only to lose to a more populist Mike Huckabee. This time around, Romney kept Iowa at arms-length in public, but quietly focused on building a much lighter, less costly organization that could seize the moment in the final days:
Mitt Romney flew beneath the radar in Iowa for months, appearing to distance himself from the first-in-the-nation caucus, before unleashing an 11th hour spending and campaigning blitz in a rope-a-dope strategy experts said could pay big dividends for the GOP presidential hopeful.
“It was definitely a purposeful strategy to campaign aggressively below the surface in Iowa while pretending it was all about New Hampshire,” Boston Republican strategist Rob Gray said. “The truth is, he’s been playing in Iowa all along, but the national media has let him get away with pretending that he’s not. We’ll see what the results are, but so far, the strategy seems to be working since many of the other candidates have broken down.”
Romney, who spent $10 million in a losing effort in Iowa in 2008, skipped the state’s August straw poll and reportedly spent just $200,000 before launching a $1.1 million ad blitz in the Hawkeye State in December. The former Massachusetts governor also has spent the past few days in Iowa while dispatching high-profile surrogates to stump for him in recent weeks, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota).
That was still a risky strategy, and it may not yet pay off in an outright win. The other Iowa leaders have all broken down — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich have all plummeted from their polling peaks — but both Rick Santorum and Ron Paul remain. That’s not a bad outcome for Romney, though. Santorum still doesn’t have much of an organization outside of Iowa yet, and Paul is not going to win anything outside of Iowa, either. Even if Romney comes in a close second or third to either or both men, his main competition will be weak, and the early primary schedule favors Romney with stops in New Hampshire, Michigan, and Florida, and perhaps even Nevada.
For most of us, Romney has been “Mr. Good Enough” all along, if he wins the nomination. He hasn’t been the first choice for many, nor even the second choice, but he’s much better than the current incumbent. Until now, talk of “good enough” has been premature, since primaries exist to allow voters to support the candidate who best fits their own political perspective and goals. It’s still not too late to do that — we haven’t even gotten to a binding contest yet that produces delegate assignments — but it won’t be long before Republicans ask themselves whether the candidates in a narrowed field are “good enough,” and support one of them as the party’s nominee.
In my column for The Week, I handicap the results for the most likely top three finishers in Iowa tonight:
Let’s start with the near dead heat for win, place, and show in this horse race. Take Mitt Romney. Given the polling over the last week and the organization that his campaign has quietly built, Romney is likely to either win this or finish very close to the top. After being shocked by Mike Huckabee in 2008, Romney has managed expectations this cycle by limiting his time in Iowa. But all along, he’s known that a strong Iowa finish leading into a big win next week in New Hampshire would only cement the impression that his nomination is inevitable. Don’t be surprised to see Romney come in first.
Ron Paul’s grassroots support is legendary, but it’s also outside the mainstream in a couple of important ways. It tends to skew more to the college students who may be out of Iowa on winter break, and to independents and Democrats who may or may not reliably show up to the caucuses. Paul’s past has also caught up with him, as the media has recently taken a serious look at the controversial content of his newsletters from the 1990s and the foreign policy positions that put Paul outside of the mainstream of the GOP. Polling from the Des Moines Register, considered the gold standard for surveying Iowa caucusgoers, showed a significant drop in Paul’s support late last week. He could drop to third, but probably no further, and that will be good enough to keep Paul’s organization in high spirits.
Two weeks ago, Rick Santorum languished near the bottom of the polls. One week ago, Iowans began to align themselves with the candidate who has spent the most time in their state, tirelessly visiting every county and seemingly greeting every voter. Over the weekend, every pollster put Santorum into second or third place — but within the margin of error of the lead. An outright win by Santorum would be a long shot, but no longer an impossibility. A finish in the top three probably raises his chances in socially-conservative South Carolina, but don’t expect Santorum to spend any time in New Hampshire outside of the debates this weekend, as he’ll need to conserve his resources. Santorum could end up becoming a rallying point for social conservatives if the other candidates begin to withdraw.
Unless Romney’s support simply fails to show tonight, he’s going to have significant momentum against a weakened field moving forward, unless the field narrows very quickly.