While Newt Gingrich basks in unexpected adulation from a Republican electorate once thought to have written him off as yesterday’s man, the rank-and-file and U.S. media alike seem incapable of focusing on anything but Mr. Romney’s perceived flaws.
Is Mr. Romney shaping up to become the Hillary Clinton of 2012, the “inevitable” party nominee who blows it all in the end?
With only four weeks to go before the primaries begin, this is not where the Romney campaign planned to be. The former Massachusetts governor has run the most sophisticated, well-funded and tightly-scripted campaign of any of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
While his rivals have entangled themselves in their own contradictions, inexperience and eccentricities – hello Herman Cain, who suspended his campaign on Saturday – Mr. Romney has played the constancy card. He has projected unflappability better than President Barack ‘No Drama’ Obama himself.
And where has all this gotten him?
It has earned him headlines and magazine covers like this one, feeding the narrative that “Mitt-Bot” is just too detached to relate to ordinary people.
“Mitt Romney’s campaign has decided upon a rather novel approach to winning the presidency. It has taken a smart and highly qualified but largely colourless candidate and made him exquisitely one-dimensional: All-Business Man, the world’s most boring superhero,” writes Robert Draper in his compelling New York Times Magazine cover story.
“Romney, a socially awkward Mormon with squishy conservative credentials and a reported worth in the range of $190-million to $250-million, is betting that in 2012, recession-weary voters want a fixer, not a B.F.F.”
It doesn’t seem like a bad strategy overall. Polls show Mr. Romney scores higher than Mr. Obama when it comes to economic management skills. And the 2012 election will, by all accounts, turn on a single issue: the economy.
The problem with this approach is that a rambunctious Republican rank-and-file wants red meat. And it has systematically gravitated at any given moment to the candidate offering the most prime cuts. In the homestretch to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, that candidate is Mr. Gingrich.
The latest Des Moines Register poll released Saturday shows Mr. Gingrich surging to 25 per cent in the Hawkeye State, leaving Mr. Romney 9 percentage points lower and in third place.
Mr. Romney does not need to win Iowa to win the nomination. But if he appears to be losing momentum on the heels of a Gingrich win there, he could be in serious trouble heading into the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Like Ms. Clinton, who eked out a victory in New Hampshire after a surprise loss to Mr. Obama in Iowa, Mr. Romney’s “inevitability” aura will fade fast.
Luckily for Mr. Romney, not all of his press of late has been unflattering. He and his family were the subject of a glowing feature in Parade Magazine, a weekend insert in more than 500 U.S. newspapers with a circulation of more than 30 million.
If a candidate’s “conservative” credentials were based exclusively on his or her family life and history, Mr. Romney would be the hands-down most conservative candidate in the race – although Michele Bachmann might give him a run for his money.
But the Parade piece underscores another challenge the Romney campaign faces: finessing his Mormon faith. From the outside, the Romneys are the picture-perfect American family. But the tenets of Mormonism and Mr. Romney’s past leadership role in his church still make plenty of Americans uncomfortable.
So, there is a reason the “Mitt-Bot” moniker may be an advantage in the end.