Skepticism in the base and a top-heavy organization mean the Republican nomination battle won't help him like the long 2008 contest helped Barack Obama.
After losing three states last Tuesday, Mitt Romney went on national television and declared: "I expect to become the nominee." Despite a surprisingly solid drubbing by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the conventional wisdom still has it that the former Massachusetts governor is right. It's a position affirmed by his wins in the CPAC straw poll and Maine caucuses over the weekend. He's got the most money, the most aggressive super PAC, the most electable issues profile.
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Conventional conservative wisdom also holds that a protracted primary battle will help the eventual nominee. After his Florida victory, Romney himself claimed that "a competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us" and that attacks against him "toughen us up." Kentucky Republican and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell believes 2012 is "reminiscent of the contest between Obama and Clinton in 2008."
That's the one, as you may remember, that made then-Senator Obama a "stronger and better candidate,"according to his chief strategist David Axelrod and just about everyone else.
"The fact is," opined Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, at the start of February, "there's nothing but good out of a muscular, competitive, hard-fought primary."
Not so fast.
The 2012 GOP primary is wounding Mitt Romney, perhaps fatally. He may seize the GOP nod, but Nominee Romney will have a significantly more difficult time in the general election because of this fight.
Whereas the choice between Obama and Clinton '08 was a difference of "degree", the choice between Romney and the rest of the GOP field in 2012 has been one of "kind." Even when you consider their differences over the Iraq War, the Democrats' disagreements in 2008 were basically shades of gray (Obama, after all, was quite clear that he supported an increased focus on Afghanistan, and turned out to have enough in common with Clinton on the foreign policy front to give her his administration's key international relations post, Secretary of State). But this year's GOP candidates are telling voters that Romney simply isn't one of their kind: he's a boring flip-flopper without conservative values, if he has any at all.
Ironically for a candidate who's done little but campaign since 2008, Romney's problem stems from the fact that he's too well-known: his name recognition was at 86 percent by July 2011. While he technically passes the "14-year freshness" test (other than Lyndon Baines Johnson, no president since Teddy Roosevelt has taken more than 14 years to transition from his first major elected office to his first term as president or vice president), he fails its spirit. Romney may have become governor just 10 years ago, but his highly-publicized record as a pragmatic Republican in one of the nation's most liberal states cemented a moderate brand he established with an earlier run against Ted Kennedy in 1994. Being known as "Moderate Mitt" is no sin in a general election, but it's turning out to be a dead weight on his momentum in the 2012 GOP primary.
Further, Romney's primary adversaries have attacked the source of his pragmatism, charging not that he has moderate values, but that he has none. Rick Perry accused Romney of saying "whatever [he] needs to say for whatever office [he's] running for." Newt Gingrich said Romney would "say almost anything." Rick Santorum has said Romney "panders" and has no "vision of what he wants to do for this country." All those accusations -- and the negative ads that have reinforced them -- add up to some shocking numbers: Only 38 percent of GOP voters -- Romney's base! -- think Romney says what he believes.
The Democratic National Committee has sought at every juncture to reinforce that narrative about Rommey, saying after his South Carolina loss that Romney "has no core values." This line of attack is devastating for two reasons: it's out there early and it is echoed at every turn by Romney's party opponents. At the same time, the protracted primary contest is forcing Romney to woo some very small and hard-line conservative voting populations, calling for an end to federal funding of Planned Parenthood in the midst of the Susan. G. Komen for the Cure Foundation flap, and ad-libbing at CPAC this past Friday that he is "severely conservative." Come summer, the combined attacks on his credibility and his own words will make it that much more difficult for Romney to convincingly swing back to the center.
Contrast this with the dynamic in 2008: On the day Barack Obama announced his candidacy, not even 60 percent of Americans knew his name -- and the number was only that high thanks to Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech. Obama's short record and relative obscurity meant he could define himself on his own terms. He soared from 18 percent support in CNN's national Democratic preference poll in January 2007 to 53 percent by June 2008. His newness was an asset, and he positioned himself as a change agent running on the themes of unity and hope. When he was challenged (as during the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha), Obama eloquently explained his position and doubled down on a national unity narrative.