Mitt Romney for President: Is He Really the Inevitable GOP Nominee?

The media are proclaiming Mitt a virtual lock, but voters can still pull a surprise, says Howard Kurtz.

Mic Smith / AP Photo

Three months before a single Republican has cast a primary or caucus vote, the media are all but declaring the GOP race over.

In case that BlackBerry outage has left you unplugged, the word from medialand is that Mitt Romney has got this thing sewn up. The train is leaving the station. The rest of those candidates might as well pack their suitcases and go home.

The Washington Post went with his headline Thursday morning, just as a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Herman Cain surging into first place: “Republicans Increasingly See Mitt Romney as the ‘Inevitable Candidate.’” The story came a day after Politico first floated the I-word: “Mitt Romney Builds Case for Inevitability.”

No matter how you slice it, Romney is clearly the odds-on favorite. But what does it say about his strength that he’s been lapped by a previously obscure pizza executive who’s never held elective office? And where does the press get off anointing a nominee in October of 2011?

It might be worth recalling that in October 2007, an ABC poll found Hillary Clinton leading Barack Obama 53 to 20 percent, and much of the punditry was about how she was steamrolling her way to the nomination. In December 2007, a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll put John McCain at 11 percent, way behind frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, with 23 percent. The Arizona senator soon left America’s mayor in the dust.

The Romney camp, naturally, dismisses the talk that its man is a lock. “There’s a very healthy recognition and understanding that this is going to be a long and hard process when it comes to earning the nomination,” says Kevin Madden, an informal adviser who served as Romney’s spokesman in the 2008 campaign. “The nomination is not inevitable. We haven’t seen one advertisement hit the airwaves in the early primary states.”

Reporters are “trend-spotters,” says Madden, and “because Rick Perry has stumbled and fallen so far so fast, they have a hard time seeing a resurrection by Perry and Cain being a viable alternative. But it’s still too early to come to those conclusions.”

Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who has worked for McCain and Jeb Bush, says the press coverage is merely reflecting the polls, which don’t account for such factors as grass-roots intensity.

“Right around this time every four years, the media write about how the election is a long way off, and it’s too early to pick a winner, and then they basically pick one anyway,” Harris says. “It wasn’t that long ago that Hillary Clinton, Mike Castle, Charlie Crist, and Martha Coakley were all declared inevitable winners in the press, and every one of them went on to lose. So while things are certainly lining up well for Romney right now, his team knows he hasn’t won yet, so why doesn’t the media?”

To be sure, as Politico and the Post pointed out, Romney is suddenly rounding up support from elected officials, most notably Chris Christie this week, and some big donors are finally moving his way. Romney’s series of strong debate performances, along with the implosion of several rivals, has persuaded parts of the Republican establishment—or what remains of it—that he represents the party’s best chance to beat Barack Obama.

“I’d rather be in his position,” says Ed Rollins, Michele Bachmann’s former campaign manager. “He has money, he has organization, he’s gone through the debates pretty much unscathed, and he’s far more disciplined than he was a few years ago. He certainly looks like the leader of the pack.”

But even Rollins doesn’t count the Texas governor out: “Perry’s still sitting there with $17 million and the prospect of raising more, and a team that knows how to run a campaign.”

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The lack of passion for Romney remains obvious, as do suspicions on the right that he is a Massachusetts moderate masquerading as a conservative. If you combine the support for Cain and Perry in that Wall Street Journal poll, 43 percent of Republican voters prefer his two top rivals, with Romney stuck at 23 percent—the same share of the vote he had in August.

In fact, Cain’s rise can be explained largely by Perry’s plunge after a series of bumbling debate performances, with much of the anyone-but-Mitt crowd shifting to the businessman who boasts of not being a politician. Nearly four in 10 of all voters questioned by the Journal said they don’t know who Cain is or don’t have an opinion of him.

The inescapable conclusion is that Cain is filling the spot previously occupied by Donald Trump, Bachmann, and Perry before he actually started campaigning: a safe harbor for those who can’t abide Romney. With little money or organization, Cain could face the same fate once the media start scrutinizing him, as is starting to happen with his 9-9-9 tax plan.

The Obama camp is also fueling the expectation that Romney will be the president’s opponent. Campaign strategist David Axelrod spent 25 minutes slamming Mitt in a Wednesday conference call with reporters. “We’re having this call because Governor Romney has been so brazen, frankly, in his switches of position,” Axelrod said.

Romney advisers admit their man isn’t Mr. Excitement, and they see that as a virtue in a grim era when people are looking for reassurance about the troubled economy. This may be making a virtue of necessity—every politician needs some ability to motivate the base—but so far the more colorful contenders have either flamed out (Perry, Bachmann, Newt Gingrich) or bowed out (Trump, Sarah Palin).

Romney’s cautious game plan of remaining viable as everyone’s second choice appears to be paying off, along with his intensive focus on the economy. If New Hampshire party officials follow through on their threat to move up their primary to December, maybe the whole thing gets wrapped up by Christmas.

But a campaign this volatile undoubtedly faces a few more hairpin turns at the hands of ticked-off voters. The tepid nature of Romney’s support could handicap him if another candidate catches fire. And to pluck one more number from that Journal poll, only 47 percent of Americans said they “feel comfortable” with Romney’s Mormon religion—a sad but inescapable fact of political life.

Not everyone is joining the media stampede. “What’s the rush?” writes Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger. By the imperfect measure of early polls, “Mitt Romney’s status is weak. Despite running against this field, he never rises above 25 percent in GOP preferences. At best, Mr. Romney is running as the party’s Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

Perhaps the best expression of conservative ambivalence toward Romney is this comment in a National Review essay by Christian Schneider:

“In 2011, Republicans are sitting at the end of the bar, and it’s 2 a.m. Ryan and Christie have already gone home, and the GOP is looking for someone to keep it company. As Joan Jett’s ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You’ plays, Mitt winks at them from the other end of the bar. Right now, he’s the best the GOP has; how the night turns out is yet to be seen.”

In that dim light, Romney may be the best available date. But it’s not yet time to close down the bar.