His candidacy has been the most transparently strategic this cycle. McCain is up? Go after McCain. McCain is down? Leave McCain alone. Thompson enters the race and seems a threat? Take a cheap shot about Law and Order. Thompson fades? Ignore him. Rudy is up? Go after Rudy. Huckabee is up? Go after Huck. You need to win a Republican primary? Make yourself the most socially conservative candidate in the race. And on and on and on.
If somebody asked me which candidate on the Republican side has won just a single election (in a year that his party did very well nationwide) -- I would answer Mitt Romney, even knowing nothing about anybody's biography. This kind of transparency is, to me, a sign of political inexperience. He's only won one election, and it shows.
Meanwhile, Larison explains what makes the speech so hard:
The impossible balancing act is stressing the political irrelevance of the theological differences Mormonism really does have with Christianity while simultaneously claiming that this very same religion, whose distinctive substance is supposed to be irrelevant, informs and shapes his “values” that he will rely on to make judgements about policy. Another part of the balancing act (which is where it becomes really dangerous politically) is to declare that it is “un-American” to judge a candidate based on his religion without insulting the millions of voters who consider a candidate’s religion an important part of selecting their preferred candidate, while also paying homage to the “separation of church and state” without actually endorsing the idea that the separation of church and state has any constitutional basis (which a fairly large number of religious conservatives doesn’t accept). His speech will have to go something like this: “My faith, which is very important to me and has made me who I am, should not be important to you, but it is important that we have a person of faith leading this country, and that person happens to be me.”
Put me down in the "it's a big mistake" camp. The speech should have been given at the very beginning of the primary season, or after Romney won the nomination; it doesn't make sense to give it in response to Mike Huckabee's rise in the polls. Huckabee is vulnerable on all sorts of issues, and Romney has the money and the infrastructure to make sure that every GOP primary voter in America - let alone Iowa and South Carolina - knows all about the tax increases and the ethics complaints and the softness on illegal immigration and all the rest of it. Going after Huckabee on these issues probably wouldn't prevent the Arkansas governor from consolidating his current level of support, but the right line of attack should be able to stall his momentum in states like New Hampshire and Michigan and South Carolina, where Romney is well-positioned even if he loses Iowa.
But instead of making the conversation about issues where Huckabee is vulnerable and Romney isn't, the Romney campaign has guaranteed that for the next two weeks at least and probably beyond, the media conversation will be about, well, Mormonism. If there were more time before the actual voting begins, that might not be the worst thing in the world; they could get the wave of coverage out of the way, inoculate themselves to some extent, and then shift gears and start hammering Huckabee on taxes and immigration and so forth. But there isn't time: Christmas is coming, there's a very narrow window in which to define Mike Huckabee as a Mexican-loving crypto-liberal, and the Romney campaign has just ensured that everyone will be talking about the Urim and the Thummim instead of the Arkansas gas tax. Unless Romney gives the best speech in the history of speeches, I just don't see how that helps him win - in Iowa, New Hampshire, or anywhere.
Photo by Flickr user NJRon using a Creative Commons license.