The Do-Nothing Frontrunner

Mitt Romney has put the "invisible" in the invisible primary. And that's working very well for him.


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Mitt Romney sits at or near the top of almost every poll of likely Republican presidential candidates. He hasn't worked hard for the distinction. While others swarm the early primary states, he has mostly stayed away. He's the rare Republican hopeful not currently or recently employed by Fox News. In fact, he rarely appears on television at all. He'll skip tonight's Republican debate in South Carolina. And who knows? He may skip the next one, too. Romney has put the ''invisible'' in the invisible primary. Let's give him his due: that looks more and more like a presidential-caliber decision.

There are two reasons why Romney is wise to make himself scarce. The first is that the Republican field has been a colossal embarrassment. The prime culprit is obviously Donald Trump, whose ''birther'' antics made him the laughingstock of last weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner -- and that was before the news broke of Osama bin Laden's death, which made him look even smaller. But Trump wasn't alone in questioning Obama's citizenship, he was just more vocal about it. Everyone else was diminished by it, too.

Before Trump, Newt Gingrich drew a flurry of publicity, in part by attacking Obama for not pursuing military action in Libya. Once the president sent in the war planes, Gingrich attacked him for doing so, reminding everyone of why he is regarded as a joke. The early bet to embarrass Republicans, Sarah Palin, has so far proved only a minor distraction. But rushing in to fill the void are a menagerie of talk radio hosts (Rick Santorum, Herman Cain), talking heads (Gingrich), and people who talk mostly to say outrageous things (Trump, Michele Bachmann). Having kept a dignified distance from this circus, Romney has avoided being tarnished by it. And even when drawn in, he has demonstrated surprising good sense. He dismissed the issue of Obama's birth certificate out of hand.

The second smart reason for biding his time has to do with Romney himself. He's not a champion campaigner. The idea of Romney -- businessman, governor, adult -- frequently outstrips the man himself. An energetic course of early primary campaigning might well have left him worse off, not better. Romney demonstrated in the last election an exceptional incapacity to convince others that he buys his own spin -- no small handicap in a politician. Last time around, he tried to overcome this deficiency by spinning even harder. But the pandering and insincerity this engendered proved deadly. One shudders to imagine what he might have said if let loose on the campaign trial in full pander mode at the height of the birther craze as Trump soared in the polls.

But this hasn't been a problem. Like a glutton who has undergone bariatric surgery, Romney has starved himself of opportunities to be embarrassed by remaining on the sidelines and looks much better for it.

Of course, the limits of such a strategy are obvious. At some point, Romney will have to partake of the primary process, and without a guarantee of faring any better. Last Friday, he made an inauspicious debut as a 2012 candidate at a Republican summit on jobs and the economy in Manchester, N.H., causing his audience to wince by declaring he would ''hang'' Obama with the country's economic problems. Oddly for an economic summit, his speech focused on American exceptionalism and endeavored to portray Obama as a weak and pusillanimous leader. This didn't stir the crowd, and his critique of the president already seems outdated.

But Romney is not likely to pay any price. In a field as weak as the current one, Romney can win without really exciting anybody. The key is for him to wait patiently until the noisier contenders burn themselves out like Roman candles and the conservative mood shifts from eager anticipation to concern to desperation. This process is already underway.

Soon enough, conservatives will start to panic. They'll realize that they need someone who is serious, sober, competent, and unlikely to embarrass them; someone who won't look ridiculous debating President Obama. Romney is all these things and hasn't had to lift a finger to convince anyone of it. Until then, the best thing he can do to promote himself is nothing at all.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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