In New Hampshire today, Mitt Romney will formally launch his presidential campaign. It’s hardly a surprising development. Romney’s second bid for the Republican nomination began the day his first ended. He has essentially been running for president since he decided not to seek reelection as governor of Massachusetts in 2006 (arguably since he changed his position on abortion the year before).
This time, Romney is the closest thing the GOP field has to a frontrunner. He leads among the declared candidates in most national polls. He is heavily favored in New Hampshire and, with Mike Huckabee out of the race, he is now in first in Iowa. In addition to his own personal wealth, Romney has been a prodigious fundraiser. At a time when campaigns are often judged by the success of their Internet “money bombs,” Romney hauled in $10 million in a single day.
Of course, Romney’s national lead is less than overwhelming. It’s also highly contingent on Sarah Palin and other potential top-tier candidates staying out of the race. In some polls, Romney is less than 10 points ahead of Ron Paul and Herman Cain. Finally, Romney led in the early states for much of 2007. His support proved soft once the ballots were counted. The man who spent most of that year atop the national polls had the same problem: Rudy Giuliani tanked as soon as he faced the voters.
In 2008, Romney was doomed by his failure to become the unquestioned conservative alternative to John McCain. Instead he shared that mantle with Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and several lower-tier candidates. This time Romney’s path to the nomination resembles McCain’s: he can win with the votes of moderates and a critical mass of conservatives, while his opponents carve up the rest of the conservative vote.
McCain withstood his support for amnesty for illegal immigrants, advocacy of constitutionally dubious campaign finance reform, and opposition to the Bush tax cuts. Romney must hope he can similarly overcome his backing of the TARP bailout, his flip-flop on abortion, and the rest of his Massachusetts moderate past. But the issue Romney must fear most is health care.
The similarities between Romneycare at the state level and Obamacare at the national level have been rehashed many times. Suffice it to say that many Republicans are not persuaded by Romney’s explanations of his Massachusetts health care law and fear the former governor’s stance on the individual mandate will make it more difficult to repeal Obamacare.
Had Romney disavowed his health care law, he would have added to his controversial list of flip-flops. But by defending Romneycare at length, he risks alienating Republican primary voters who already regard him as too liberal.
Romney faced a similar challenge concerning ethanol. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of many Republicans who would like to dethrone Romney, took his truth-telling tour to Iowa and said: all energy subsidies must be phased out, including those benefiting your precious ethanol. Romney could have followed suit, but that would have been another flip-flop. “I support the subsidy of ethanol,” Romney instead told an Iowa voter. “I believe ethanol is an important part of the energy solution for our country.”
With unemployment hovering near 10 percent, Romney does not have to emphasize the social issues that bedeviled him in 2008. He can instead talk about his private sector experience and his ideas to create jobs. But that private sector experience comes as a double-edged sword: as a venture capitalist, Romney created jobs and he also laid people off. Ted Kennedy used the latter against him to great effect in their 1994 Senate contest.
The Romney campaign is one of the great Rorschach tests of American politics. Depending on your view, one might contrast Romney’s record with the Tea Party-infused Republican Party and ask: How can he win? One might also look at the rest of the field — and the GOP’s penchant for rewarding the runner-up from the last election — and ask: How can Romney lose?