Romney's Game Plan

Mitt Romney is laying the groundwork for 2012.

11.03.08 7:37 AM ET

James Carville once said running for president was like having sex: It’s not something you're apt to try just once; there’s a high recidivism rate. This is good news if you enjoyed Mitt Romney the first time. You're almost certain to see him again in 2012.

Much sooner than that actually. Romney dropped out of the presidential race in February, but he never went away. He quickly became a regular guest on cable news, started a political action committee (which, according to National Review, has already given away more than $200,000 in donations), and this fall began stumping in earnest for various Republican candidates, including John McCain.

Not only does Romney know more about economics than Palin does, he has greater self-control.

In the past four days, Romney has hit nearly a dozen states on behalf of the McCain campaign, but really on his own behalf. This is what groundwork looks like when it’s being laid.

It’s the oldest cliche in politics that the next campaign starts the day after the election, and this year that is especially true on the Republican side. Republicans hate chaos and uncertainty, but after eight years of an unpopular administration,they no longer have the luxury of an orderly succession. As one Republican consultant said to me the other day, come Wednesday morning the party will resemble post-Soviet Afghanistan: “Everybody’s going to declare themselves warlord.”

At this point, Sarah Palin would seem to have the most powerful arsenal. While Democrats tend to revile their losing candidates, Republicans revere theirs. Losing to Obama and Biden won't destroy Palin’s reputation within the party. It might enhance it. Palin also has the advantage of being world famous, she’s admired by party activists, and she can draw huge crowds. And unlike Romney, she'll never be accused of being a phony.

Authenticity was always Romney’s biggest problem. Being a Mormon hurt him with evangelicals, especially in the South. But what sunk Romney was the suspicion that he was playing a part. A self-described free market conservative, as governor of Massachusetts he instituted health care reforms that look very much like what Obama is proposing now. (Anyone who supports Obama's heath care plan ought to take a look at how Romney's program is working out. Not well.)

Now a proud social conservative, the formerly pro-choice Romney once told a gay group that he was more for gay rights that Ted Kennedy, when everybody knows that’s almost by definition impossible. (You'd have to be living with a man to be more for gay rights than Ted Kennedy.) Romney came off as a slick phony. That’s why he lost the nomination.

He’s got a much better chance of winning it next time, though. What’s the evidence? He won over John McCain.

In the final days of a desperate campaign, a losing candidate is apt to be grateful for any help he can get, even from a former enemy. But according to those who know them both, Romney and McCain are now on genuinely warm terms. It’s a remarkable development. Not even a year ago, McCain considered Romney loathsome, and all but said so in public. (By contrast, McCain had obvious affection for his other opponents.) One morning, just to incite him, I asked McCain what he thought of Romney as a person. He kept control of himself, barely, but I swear I could see his face twitch.

McCain’s staff angrily pointed to one incident in particular as evidence of Romney’s awfulness. Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, the Drudge Report posted a photograph, originally taken as a Christmas card picture, of Mike Huckabee and his family back home in Arkansas.

The shot showed all five Huckabees, overweight in matching shirts, smiling awkwardly for the camera. Though the photograph had been mailed to hundreds of people years before, McCain considered it cruel to leak it to Drudge in the middle of a campaign. And he was convinced Romney did it.

None of that seems to matter now. Undeterred by the hostility, Romney eventually backed McCain in a notably gracious endorsement speech, and has worked with cheery persistence to make himself useful ever since. Romney was able to ignore personal slights and remain focused on his goal, which is to build a political base.

Compare that to McCain’s running mate. Within weeks of being chosen, an obviously frustrated Palin was undercutting McCain in public. Bad sign. Not only does Romney know more about economics than Palin does, he has greater self-control. That will matter in the end. In the coming struggle between Romney and Palin to lead the Republican Party, the phonier candidate may have the advantage.