The case for Mitt Romney is now largely in place. He has survived several near-death political experiences, demonstrating his resilience. He has deployed campaign cash with devastating effect against a series of opponents. He is conducting a national campaign that will rack up delegates on Super Tuesday and beyond, even if he loses some primary contests along the way. It hasn’t been pretty, but at least it is over.
This is a newest form of the Romney campaign’s inevitability argument. Rather than an early, consensus choice, he will be the last man standing.
Perhaps. But this may underestimate Romney’s remaining obstacles. Each time he has recovered from a near-death experience, he has emerged weaker. In the days following a come-from-behind victory, expectations rise that he will finally sew up the nomination. Each time these expectations are not met, the disappointment grows deeper. The cycle leads Republicans to suspect that Romney is a poor closer — a less electable candidate than they initially thought.
Following Rick Santorum’s rise, Republican elites were on the verge of panic, speculating (mainly in blind quotes) that some alternative to both Santorum and Romney might be needed. Those voices were quieted by Romney’s Michigan and Arizona victories.
But Romney still faces serious GOP discontent — and not just among unreconciled conservatives. Republican political types understand that Santorum’s loss was, at least in part, an act of self-destruction. He proved incapable of resisting damaging message distractions. And Romney’s final appeal in Michigan will not be studied as a model of competence. His speech at the Detroit Economic Club, for example, was intended to be campaign reset. When the day came, the setting was awkward, the speech was typical and Romney himself added a gaffe — the two Caddies reference — that dominated press coverage.
In a campaign event, there are only three things that can be controlled: the setting, the speech and the candidate. On a crucial day of Romney’s campaign, all three were weak — a trifecta of ineffectiveness.
With these concerns just below the surface, a few major losses on Super Tuesday would not be a detour on the way to the coronation. A loss in Ohio and the southern states, for example, would probably bring back concerns about Romney’s closing skills with a vengeance – this time no longer concealed behind blind quotes. Romney’s delegate count will increase next Tuesday. But if he is seen to falter again, GOP discontent will accumulate as well.