The Republican establishment is suddenly confronting the very real possibility that their horse in the Presidential race is more broken down nag than thoroughbred. A week ago, Mitt Romney seemed assured of sweeping the first three primary votes and virtually locking up the nomination – before the race even began.
Then came a dismal debate on Monday night, in which Newt Gingrich gained a standing ovation and Mittens was left grasping at straws. That was followed by Texas Governor Rick Perry dropping out and endorsing Gingrich, and the Iowa GOP declaring that Rick Santorum was the actual winner in their caucus. The next night, Gingrich delivered another bravura debate performance while Romney did his best Porky Pig impersonation.
Suddenly, a 14 point lead turned into a 12 point loss. And as of this morning, Romney’s 22 point lead in Florida has turned into a 9 point deficit, a 31 point swing in 2 days. The establishment is understandably freaking out. It’s understandable because Romney represents the time-honored tradition of candidate-in-waiting. Oh, and the little fact that they have poured millions of dollars into his campaign thus far – a very real investment on the party leadership’s part. If Romney fails to secure the nomination, it will rank right up there with Solyndra in the history of investment strategies. And finally, there’s the very real possibility that Gingrich will win the nomination. Let’s face it, there is absolutely no love lost between Gingrich and the party elite, many of whom worked diligently over the past 25 years to bury him. To see Gingrich rise like a phoenix from the ashes of his political career has to be particularly galling to people like Karl Rove and Ann Coulter.
But their problem is less with Gingrich than it is with Romney. If Romney were a truly leading candidate, odds are Newt wouldn’t have had a prayer. The fact is they bet on the wrong horse. Even if he survives to claim the nomination, he will be too battered and bloodied to win the Presidency. Romney’s greatest attribute as a candidate was the “I can WIN” argument; losing two of the first three contests (and getting his tail handed to him in the most recent) doesn’t lend much credence to that claim. In fact, after the first three nominating votes, Gingrich leads Romney in the delegate count, 26-19. In point of fact, Romney is closer to third place (Santorum has 13 delegates) than to first.
For all of his money, establishment backing and slick TV commercials, Romney suffers from a very real problem: he isn’t believable. It doesn’t stem from his constantly changing policy positions (Gingrich is equally culpable of that crime). Rather, it comes from a simple observation of the man himself. When you look at Mitt, you see a Presidential candidate straight from central casting: good looking, with perfect hair. Good looking wife and kids. Donates to his church and community. No skeletons in his closet. No skeletons in his family’s closets. Wealthy son of self-made immigrants.
In all of this perfect bio and appearance lies Romney’s essential problem, and it isn’t something that can be corrected in a 60 second commercial or even a 30 minute interview with Barbara Walters. No, Americans know genuine when they see it. Genuine is not a life that would make Ozzie and Harriet jealous. American’s know that real people have trials and travails. They fail, they pick themselves up; they screw up and make amends. They are the guys you hang out at the bar with on Friday night after work. The ones you go bowling with on Wednesday. They are most definitely not Mitt Romney. Every time Romney talks about how $375,000 in speaking fees “aren’t that much” he just comes across as a little more unauthentic; every time he hides something (tax returns, destroyed computer hard drives) you’re left wondering what it is he’s hiding. Because we all know he has a skeleton somewhere – we all do, even if we never talk about them. And we expect our Presidents (and the people who aspire to be President) to at least be human enough to admit they aren’t perfect.
Americans like failed heroes, especially ones who have managed to rehabilitate themselves (see: Rob Lowe or Newt Gingrich). We can relate to making human mistakes, asking forgiveness and starting again. We can’t relate to people who are perfect (or imagine themselves to be). Therein lies Mitt Romney’s problem. And I don’t think he can fix it before January 31.