The race for the Republican nomination has been a wild ride, full of twists and turns and sudden reversals. But in the long view, for Mitt Romney, it has gone almost exactly according to plan.
As the campaign celebrated its Florida victory early Wednesday, Romney's chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, acknowledged as much: "All of this is difficult to wargame, but yes, we do feel good about where we are," he said.
Even when Romney has stumbled along the way, it has been for the best, said Mark McKinnon, the Texas-based strategist, wit, and former George W. Bush adviser. "Romney has played it generally very smartly everywhere," he said. "He took a bit of a nap in South Carolina, but that served to wake him up and get his game back on for Florida."
All winning campaigns are brilliant in hindsight -- it's Tolstoy's First Rule of Politics (corollary: every losing campaign is dysfunctional in its own way). And Romney's cautious, top-heavy braintrust didn't really keep its eye on the prize. Rather, he got drawn into full-on competition in Iowa and South Carolina, heightening expectations and exacerbating what might have been inevitable losses in those states instead of breezing by them. Within the Romney organization, these decisions have been the subject of much discussion, and even now opinions are divided on whether the right course was taken.
Some analysts think Romney got suckered into competing in those states.
"I never really saw the value in him going into Iowa and South Carolina," said Christian Ferry, former deputy campaign manager for John McCain.
But there was an upside, he noted: "The overall Romney effort in Iowa helped kick down Newt Gingrich." The ads Romney's allied super PAC aired in Iowa were a successful dry run for the brutal onslaught they would unleash in Florida. The loss in South Carolina, meanwhile, may have punctured Romney's inevitability, but it made him stronger once he rebounded.
The Romney camp notes that there was never an explicit decision made to pull out of Iowa or South Carolina. The official line always was that he would compete in all of the early states. But Romney adviser Kevin Madden acknowledged that it was a different approach from 2008's flood-the-zone effort.
"The plan was to compete in all of the early primary states. The difference was that this effort would be guided by the experience of 2008, when we went very heavy with resources in many of those states," Madden said. "This time, we were very efficient with our resources in Iowa. We made sure the governor did what he needed to be in position to possibly win," and he came very close.
Similarly, in South Carolina, Romney advocates contend he moved to capitalize on an apparent opportunity but didn't get bogged down in a quixotic, uphill effort. Meanwhile, in Florida, Romney's legwork gave him a huge head start on the other candidates.