After his second place finishes in Iowa and then New Hampshire, most observers thought former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was done for. The preemptive obits rolled off the presses and scrolled down millions of computer monitors, and most nodded their heads.
Former FOX News polling analyst John Ellis confidently predicted, "Romney's defeat in Michigan will be definitive. And then it'll be over; back to Belmont with Ann and the kids and plenty of time to think about what went wrong."
Having watched Romney in action for the last year and change, my head declined to nod to this new consensus. Why? Because in all the important super early contests, from D.C.-based advocacy primaries held by CPAC and the Family Research Council to the August Ames, Iowa straw poll, Romney had won.
Not overwhelmingly, not splashily. He had just ground out one victory after another, through superior organization, message discipline, doggedness, and spending a lot of money.
The media narrative of Romney coming out of New Hampshire was all bad. Here was another East Coast rich, largely self-financed candidate (a la Steve Forbes) who would finally realize that he was blowing the family fortune on a lark and bow out. The supposed writing on the wall came when Romney pulled advertisements from other early states, including South Carolina, to bet it all on the Michigan primary.
The oddsmakers didn't give Romney great chances in Michigan, even though he was born there and his father had been governor. Voters were into candidates who reminded them of people they worked with, like Mike Huckabee or the straight talking John McCain, rather than people who'd laid them off, like management expert Romney.
For Mitt, it was all over but the concession speech.
ROMNEY LOOKED at the same situation and saw a very different story. Having placed second in Iowa and New Hampshire, and first in the little-noticed Wyoming caucuses, he had a lead in delegates. Not a commanding lead, but one consistent with his campaign to that point.
The former Michigander approached the state, and his campaign there, like the turnaround artist that he had been in the private sector. He talked about the state's economic problems not as Democrats do, as another burden for us to take up collectively, but as a problem that could be fixed.
Many conservatives focused on the collective-planning implications of Romney saying that as president he would work with automakers to try to help solve their problems. Human Events editor Jed Babbin called it a "Khrushchev-style five year plan for Detroit."
But as the Competitive Enterprise Institute's John Berlau has shown, there was a whole lot more to his campaign. Romney did talk up some dubious proposals in Michigan. He also attacked regulation and environmental legislation, including too-strict CAFE standards and cap-and-trade mandates.
In effect, he told Michigan that government was the problem and he'd try to make it less of a problem. A great number of Republicans and independents bought into that message, and trusted him to implement it.
After Romney's Michigan victory, many people were surprised to see that Romney didn't press harder in South Carolina, leaving early to campaign in the Nevada caucuses. He could finish John McCain off in South Carolina, just as George W. Bush did in 2000. Why not stay and fight?
Romney's decision shouldn't have been surprising, because he was looking at something different than most observers: the numbers. While several other candidates swung at each other in South Carolina, he quietly pocketed more delegates in the arid Nevada soil, thus adding to his growing delegate lead.
McCain lingered over his South Carolina victory but as the Nevada results rolled in, Romney was already on a plane to Florida. (Where the latest Rasmussen poll gives him a slight lead.) His early departure was consistent with his so-far successful strategy: Score but don't spike; win by quietly grinding it out.
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