Romney Tries to Lock Up Front-Runner Status

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With his rivals suffering setbacks and with Chris Christie declining to run, the former Massachusetts governor has found himself in prime position

Mitt Romney debt clock - Brian Snyder Reuters - banner.jpg

Meet the new front-runner, same as the old front-runner.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced his decision to forgo a presidential campaign on Tuesday, it was the latest development to go Mitt Romney's way. If luck is the residue of design, the former Massachusetts governor's got plenty of it. His liabilities are well-known: His health care law is still a loser with Republican primary voters, and his Mormon faith is a tough sell for some evangelicals in the party. He's rarely topped the 25 percent mark in national polls, and donors haven't flocked to him, waiting to be swept off their feet by someone else.

But three months before the first Republican nominating contests, Romney is now in a commanding position. The conservative opposition against him is splintered. He withstood Texas Gov. Rick Perry's early surge, and now leads him in recent national polls. Businessman Herman Cain is enjoying a surge, but he's taking time off the campaign trail to promote his book -- hardly the sign of a campaign prepared to translate the enthusiasm into votes. Rep. Michele Bachmann's campaign is flagging, a development that could give Romney an opening to make a play for Iowa, a state he once wrote off. And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who threatened his moderate flank, has generated little to no enthusiasm, and is still a blip in polls.

Meanwhile, Romney's infrastructural strengths -- fundraising, a wired national network, a team of top-flight talent, the recognition that accrues from two consecutive presidential bids -- are well-suited to help him withstand the shortcomings of his own candidacy.

"I think their strategy from the get-go has been to run against Obama. They survived the Bachmann arc, they survived, it looks like, the Perry arc. And there is no Christie arc. And there's Romney again," said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist and former aide to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Four years ago or five years ago, the Romney campaign was scrambling for a strategy, adjusting on a daily basis. This time, they clearly thought through how they could do this, they looked over the field, and they've largely stuck to that strategy.

"It's not a two-man race anymore. It's a one-man race," he said.

Romney's preparedness was in evidence during the last three debates. He parried Perry's worn and poorly enunciated charges of policy flip-flops, and had primed and ready to go his own line of attack against Perry's views on Social Security. Romney's strong criticism of Perry's support of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants could prove detrimental to Romney in a general election campaign, but it appears to have helped damage Perry in the primaries.

As soon as Christie bowed out on Tuesday afternoon, Romney was on the phone to major Republican donors in an effort to move fence-sitters in his direction and perhaps nail down the aura of invincibility that has eluded him so far in the primary season. Home Depot founder Ken Langone, a key figure in the "Draft Christie" movement, pledged his allegiance to Romney on Tuesday in an appearance on the Charlie Rose talk show.

His team's organization and calendar stewardship have allowed Romney to periscope the primary in ways other candidates have not. Last Thursday, he unveiled his leadership team in Vermont, not traditionally a pivotal Republican state, and in Connecticut, where Republicans don't vote until April 24 -- emblematic of the Romney camp girding for a long ground campaign redolent of the 2008 Democratic primary race. Such long-range schematics are rolled out in part to reassure GOP insiders, many of whom are still loath to pick a candidate, that Romney can go the distance.

But other Republicans are anticipating a drawn-out primary contest. Bill Spencer, a lobbyist at Potomac Strategic Development and an uncommitted Republican, said: "It just seems like every week, the polls just keep going up and down, and so I just don't know what to think. Money and press are the big things in campaigns, and it's just going to come down to who gets the momentum going, and it doesn't seem like anybody's doing that at this point."

Aside from the organizational dominance Romney has purposefully amassed, he is also showing himself to be a rougher customer than his unmussed image of a dispassionate corner-office technocrat. Luck alone has not allowed him to withstand the blows from other campaigns, the press, and the vagaries of the campaign trail. Four years ago, political observers eventually accepted that Barack Obama had a more durable constitution than originally expected. Romney, in his second presidential campaign, is starting to show glimpses of the same.

"I would love him to exhibit that, because he is steely tough and that steely toughness I don't think has come through to the electorate," said Thomas Trimarco, who was Romney's top budget aide when he was governor. "And that's unfortunate in my view, because that's how I know the man. And I think it's a winning persona."

Image credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

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Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily.

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