Is Mitt Romney Really the GOP Front Runner for 2012?

The former Massachusetts governor leads a crowded field

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The beneficiaries of last week's Republican tsunami haven't even been sworn in yet, but attention has already turned to 2012, where Mitt Romney has emerged as the early front-runner to secure the party's presidential nomination. It's a familiar position for the former Massachusetts governor, one he hopes turns out better than it did in 2008, when he was unable to win over skeptical GOP voters despite boasting an impressive resume and significant fundraising edge over his rivals. Have things really changed for Romney, who currently tops National Journal's presidential power rankings and enjoys a 27 point lead over nearest rival Mike Huckabee in the latest Public Policy poll of New Hampshire voters?

  • Next Man Up Writing in The Week, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum says Romney enjoys the same advantages heading into 2012 that his old boss had in 2000. "Like Bush in 2000, Romney is the Republican heir apparent in 2012," says Frum. "Like Bush, Romney has the backing of the party's biggest donors. Like Bush, Romney has national campaign experience. Like Bush, Romney faces opponents who can be dismissed as either obscure (Pawlenty, Daniels) or extreme (Palin, Gingrich.)" Frum notes that Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign showed it is possible to squander such advantages, which Romney can avoid if he "pulls far ahead in his fundraising — if the more conservative Republicans continue to divide between Palin, Gingrich and others — and if he locks up endorsements early."
  • Soft Support While not questioning Romney's current position atop a crowded GOP field, Slate's Dave Weigel wonders if Romney's strong numbers will hold up once the race starts in earnest. "Some amount of the Romney vote is a generic vote for the presidential-looking Republican who came second in the primaries," cautions Weigel. "There's no sense of how many Romney voters know about his Massachusetts health care plan, which was not much of an issue in 2008, so you see why no one's being scared out of the race."
  • Base Problem The New York Times' Ross Douthat notes that the bulk of Romney's support in early polls comes from moderates. "In general," observes Douthat, "Romney leads because he wins moderates by a mile and then splits conservatives with the other candidates." It's a fragile coalition, one that leaves Romney open to a challenge from a more conservative candidate. "Romney is a vulnerable frontrunner, and there’s room...for another candidate to swoop in and serve as the bridge between moderates and conservatives instead."
  • Lack Of Oxygen Don't expect that candidate to be Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or South Dakota Sen. John Thune, currently no. 2 and 3 on the National Journal power rankings, advises Nate Silver. Based on Silver's analysis, Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee are the "clear-frontrunners" for the nomination. Pawlenty and Thune are discussed in beltway circles as candidates who stand to gain if one of the top candidates falters, but Silver is unconvinced. "The theory seems to be that all of the front-runners are flawed in some way, which is undoubtedly true," he concedes. "But if one of the front-runners flops in some way once the campaign actually begins, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be one of the other front-runners who would pick up their slack."
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