After months of trying to find his place in the Republican Party, Mitt Romney has found it. He now joins John Connally, Phil Gramm, and Steve Forbes, the other big-spending GOP presidential candidates who flamed out spectacularly.
The most polished and tidy candidate of the 2008 race has now left a contest that has come to be defined by its unpredictability. For a party that has had such tough political luck and still remains divided, it’s time to delight in the fact that John McCain, the all-but-nominee, can spend his time raising money, repairing fences, and defining Democrats while the Obama vs. Clinton battle continues. Democrats would have preferred to run against another opponent (though they’ve expected McCain would get the nod, which is why both Clinton and Obama have been targeting him in their remarks recently).
As so often happens when a campaign dies, Romney had his best political moment of the race while expiring. Republicans are expected to fall in line, and that’s what Romney did. “If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win,” he said to cries of “no” from some in the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”
His remarks, which would have made Joe McCarthy proud, touched all of the right’s political buttons, in a way Romney rarely managed during the race. In addition to proving himself to be a stalwart Party man, willing to sacrifice his personal ambitions for the cause, Romney on his way out showed a singular focus on the crucial issue of national security issues. He helped frame the general election in terms of Republicans who understand the threat from Islamic terrorists and Democrats who don’t. It’s rumored that he is thinking about running in the future; if so, maybe today marked that beginning as much as this ending.
Even so, Romney appeared to believe genuinely what he was saying today, countering a rap that had been his Achilles’ heel throughout the campaign. Instead of running hard on his business career and as the man who could fix Washington, at least until the last few weeks, he mostly ran as the most conservative face in the crowd. But that claim was often contradicted by his own earlier words, which is why McCain’s ad team could make an attack ad (never aired) made up of footage of Romney contradicting himself in just the same erect and forceful manner he was using to hawk the new goods.
Over the course of the GOP primaries, it became clear from exit polls that Republicans were voting based on candidate character more than policy positions. Despite all the money Romney spent on ads and organization, including millions of his own fortune, voters just didn’t seem to like him. In the last weeks, Romney was supported by the full force of the conservative commentator corps, and voters still didn’t sign up. He was a PowerPoint candidate who was all points and no power.
Romney also suffered from being the only one onstage whom the rest of the field felt really comfortable attacking. If the voters didn’t warm to him, his rivals really soured. Giuliani and McCain had a friendship pact, as did McCain and Fred Thompson. Huckabee and McCain have been so complimentary you’d think they were already running on the same ticket. But Romney seemed to rankle the others at a level that went beyond competition. This turned into Whac-a-Mole in the debate in Manchester, N.H., before the early January primary, with five hammers and one mole. “He was a guest in the House of Conservative, but he walked around like he owned the place,” says a GOP consultant to one of Romney’s rivals. “He was sanctimoniously attacking others for positions that he himself only took recently. He was viewed as soulless and mean, quick to go negative, all the while carrying himself with this ‘Gee whiz and aw shucks’ demeanor.”
The McCain campaign saw the end coming. Asked Thursday morning about news that Romney advisers were working on a plan to fight for delegates all the way to the convention, a top McCain aide replied: “Don’t buy ‘we’re going after uncommitted or semi-committed delegates.’ That’s what campaigns say in the bitterness of the last throes before accepting reality.”
Huckabee remains in the race, but barring some extraordinary development, he will not win, and if he really wants a spot in a future McCain Cabinet, he probably won’t press his case too hard. McCain can now contemplate a little time for relaxation (though he’s not going to Munich). As the money starts to come in, he might think about hiring some staff. The new team won’t have to spend so much time fighting off Romney. But pretty soon it’ll be time to get started on their bigger job.
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