There’s already talk of Mitt Romney’s prospects for 2012. Clearly, this played into his decision to bail out of the race early rather than continue to divide the party up until the convention. On the surface, there is something to be said for his chances in 2012, because he would enter that race with advantages he didn’t have this time around. He’d have higher name recognition; assuming he doesn’t change again, he’ll have held his conservative positions for four years longer; and in a party that likes to reward candidates when it’s “their turn,” he can make the case that he’s next in line.
With that said, let’s be clear that the enthusiasm he generated among conservatives over the past few weeks was more a function of him being seen as the last chance to stop John McCain. Romney’s supporters may blame Mike Huckabee for splitting the conservative vote, but Huckabee succeeded precisely because Romney wasn’t able to seal the deal with social conservatives.
I would say that Romney’s potential (beyond the obvious need for either McCain to lose this year or win and only serve one term) is largely a based on whether a new consensus conservative arises over the next four years to galvanize the movement. Romney ended up establishing himself as the choice of a plurality of conservatives who saw him as the best option in a flawed field. But he never really lit a fire under a large enough number of people for me to think that he’ll have much staying power unless we have a similarly flawed field in another four years.