credit: Larry Downing/Reuters
Don't you dare call Mitt Romney the front-runner.
Sure, he's got the money, the organization, the best-selling book, and the hair. In national polls of possible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Romney is at or near the top. Perhaps most important, he has run before. Paid his dues. Been to the rodeo.
Ask anybody: If there is a front-runner in the race, it's Romney. Of the other potential contenders who could be labeled as leading the pack, Sarah Palin is too divisive, the thinking goes, while Mike Huckabee can't put enough money together. (By the way, does a guy planning to take a weeklong cruise to Alaska in June act like he's running for president?)
Yet in the same Romney-is-the-front-runner breath comes this: It's too early to make predictions. The race is totally fluid. Anything can happen.
In other words, Romney is the front-runner for a nomination that nobody assumes he'll win.
No need to ask why. His problems are well documented. Fiscal conservatives cringe at parallels between the former governor's health care program in Massachusetts and President Obama's federal plan. Social conservatives wince at Romney's flip-flops on abortion, gun control, immigration, and gay rights, and, privately, at his Mormonism.
All of which make Romney a very different kind of Republican front-runner. He's not a commanding leader of the pack like Ronald Reagan in 1980, who could afford to sit out straw polls and candidate forums. He's not George H.W. Bush, a sitting vice president climbing atop the ticket in 1988. He's not Bob Dole, the GOP's elder statesman, making his third bid for the presidency in 1996. He's not the financial and organizational juggernaut that was George W. Bush in 2000.
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Romney stands on the precipice of the race looking more like one of the equivocal Democratic front-runners of the 1980s--say, Gary Hart before the Monkey Business episode--a candidate whose strengths appear almost evenly matched by his weaknesses. Republicans share a widespread sense that the 2012 race has been unusually long in taking shape. That may be largely because no one can quite figure out whether they believe the man nominally at the head of the line can defend that position once voters weigh in.
"The prevailing theme for this cycle is, 'Who will be the last man standing?' " said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, a top Romney adviser in 2008. "Nobody wants to set themselves up as a target for the media and their opponents, especially if you've been around the track before. Let the other guy step to the front of the line."
"WE'RE IN NO HURRY"
A strong case can be made for Romney's candidacy--when he's ready to start making it. The team behind Romney's Massachusetts-based political action committee, Free and Strong America, says little on the record these days. I took them up on a vague lunch invitation, flying from Washington to Boston just for the day, and was politely asked to put my notebook away.
Campaign operatives frequently try to talk reporters into stories or out of them. The Romney team, for now, is curiously low-key.
"I'm not interested in ginning up 2012 stories," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's traveling press secretary for the 2008 campaign and a former newspaper reporter. "The big lesson we learned from last time was that we got started too early. We're in no hurry to announce our plans."
Sitting next to Fehrnstrom at a trendy downtown restaurant was Matt Rhoades, Romney's former communications director, who had even less to say. Rhoades was a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and research director for President Bush's reelection in 2004. Pressed repeatedly to talk about the shape of the race, Rhoades deferred to Fehrnstrom: "There is no race. There are no candidates. How can you know who the front-runner is?"
Indeed, the most recent Gallup Poll shows a statistical tie between Huckabee at 18 percent and Romney and Palin at 16 percent apiece. A dozen other potential candidates logged single-digit ratings. Herman Cain, a former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, is the only relatively prominent Republican officially in the race.
"I can't remember a time in Republican politics when the field was this wide open," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Even as he delays an official campaign launch, Romney is working diligently to court donors (he raised $6.3 million in his state and federal accounts last year), map out a campaign strategy, and sculpt his image. In one recent week, he made an unannounced stop at a NASCAR race wearing a sportsman's fishing shirt; penned a National Review column assailing Obama's policy toward Israel; and sent a $5,000 donation from his PAC to the Wisconsin GOP to show support for Gov. Scott Walker's standoff with public-employee unions.
"We got some good ideas" from Romney about health care reform. —Former White House aide David Axelrod
Romney's aides would not release his travel plans or speculate on when he might announce his candidacy. His scheduled appearance at the Carroll County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner on March 5 will be his first announced visit to New Hampshire since October, a must-win state for Romney that hosts the nation's first presidential primary.
"We got some good ideas" from Romney about health care reform. --Former White House aide David Axelrod
He and other Republican hopefuls are taking their time for good reasons. The constantly churning news cycle makes it much harder for front-runners to sustain momentum. Few can withstand the intense, unrelenting scrutiny of the Internet and cable television. What's more, if the national Republican Party has its way, the 2012 primaries will be more of an endurance test than a sprint. In 2008, Iowa voted just three days into the year, Super Tuesday fell in February, and the nomination was settled by March 4.
For 2012, the RNC is nudging the four earliest voting states, including Iowa, toward February dates; states that award delegates proportionately toward March; and winner-take-all-states to April. States that violate the rules risk losing delegates and weakening their political clout.
"The longer he waits to start campaigning, the better," said seasoned GOP fundraiser John Rood, who quietly squired Romney to meetings with South Florida donors last month. "Once it starts, it's off to the races. So if you can run a 23-mile marathon instead of a 26-mile marathon, you do it."
At this time four years ago, Romney had already completed the equivalent of an Ironman competition.
He had aired campaign ads in five early-voting states; defended his previous support for abortion rights; explained why he only recently joined the National Rifle Association; acknowledged he voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 presidential primary; confronted questions about illegal immigrants tending his lawn; and deflected arguments that his Mormonism wouldn't alienate voters.
No wonder Romney titled his post-campaign book, "No Apology." He spent much of the last campaign on his knees, begging social conservatives to accept him. He was a little too eager to please.
"A great quality that he has, that didn't serve him well in the last campaign, was answering every question asked," said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Washington lobbyist and an ardent Romney promoter. "He's so smart that if you ask him about some nuance regarding health care, his brain will give you a thoughtful and possibly arcane answer. But you don't have to do that. You can answer the question the way you want to.