A shorter version of this piece appeared on Comment is free.
It was almost poetic that Mitt Romney should score 25% in the Iowa caucus and win by just eight votes. The narrow result encapsulated the lack of enthusiasm for the man who Ann Romney introduced, last night, as “the next President of the United States”. Most Republicans probably agree with her. They saw the recent opinion poll that gave Romney an 8% lead over Obama in a general election match up. That’s the biggest yet but it’s part of the problem. A ConHomeUSA survey of grassroots conservatives found that nearly two-thirds of the party expect to win the White House in November. Republican expectations are high. They don’t just want to win the White House. They want to change the country and to rollback the Obama years.
The average Republican doesn’t think Obama is an ordinary president or that these are ordinary times. They know that middle class incomes are flat or falling. They fear China is becoming ever more powerful. They wince as the United States retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan and, if not beaten, is certainly not victorious. They want a president who will take America in a very different direction. They want urgency, radicalism and steel in their nominee.
Newt Gingrich understood this hunger and, for a while, Republicans familiar with his temper and questionable private life were willing to forgive a man with, as it has been said, more baggage than Louis Vuitton. But, inevitably, he faded and the Republicans voted with their head rather than their heart.
The latest Republican to champion the Not-Romney mood is Rick Santorum. Santorum’s socially conservative views on abortion and homosexuality meant he did well in Iowa. He may also give Romney a run for his money in South Carolina. Overall, however, I can’t see Santorum surging for long. He peaked at the right time in Iowa. He peaked when it was too late for friends of Romney to unleash the kind of television adverts that did for Gingrich. But, if necessary, they will. Santorum could be attacked for what the BBC describes as his “fierce” social conservatism. More likely is that voters will get a reminder that he lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat by a whopping 18% in 2006.
Romney will win the nomination because the likes of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie never entered the race. Texas Governor Rick Perry was, on paper, the biggest threat to him but his executive experience and Christian conservatism counted for nothing after he bombed in the debates. His fifth place in Iowa was a poor return on $4 million of spending in Iowa alone. Romney will get the endorsement of John McCain in New Hampshire today and will win that state next week. If he triumphs a week later in South Carolina it’s hard to think he can be stopped.
Nominee Romney’s first task will then be to unite the party behind him. He needs to act quickly to stop someone like Ron Paul running as a third party candidate. Paul has said he will remain a Republican but hasn’t quite closed the door to running as a libertarian – a path he has trodden before.
Choosing a running mate like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida will help Romney in the task of keeping the Tea Party happy. Rubio ticks all the right boxes. He’s young; telegenic; Hispanic; represents one of the Electoral College’s swing states; and did, himself, emerge from the Tea Party Movement.
Sitting on top of a balanced ticket Romney can then win if he is a boring enough candidate. Boring is good because Republicans need to turn the election into a referendum on Obama. Obama wants to run from his record and scare voters about Republican extremism. The real Romney isn’t scary. Romney’s remaining weakness is that he is very rich. He need to counter that by embracing Santorum’s blue collar message. Santorum captured the imagination of Iowans because he’s been able to talk about the pressures on ordinary families. He’s focused on manufacturing, the cost of living and job security. The GOP base may want big ideas but it’s kitchen table conservatism that will put Romney in the White House.