It’s very possible Mitt Romney could finish in the top two in the Iowa caucuses and then win the New Hampshire primary handily. At that point he would be the prohibitive favorite in Florida and thereafter gain a lock on the nomination. That is no foregone conclusion, but both Romney and those who have been ferociously opposed to his nomination may soon need to begin thinking about how they can unite, put disagreements behind them and get about the business of beating President Obama.
As a preliminary matter, it will be incumbent on Romney antagonists, should he win the nomination, to give up the fiction that the “elites” or “insiders” or “establishment” foisted Romney on the party. The notion that any clique could exercise such power was always a red herring, but if Romney wins a majority of delegates it will be confirmation that he, and not his antagonists, have the confidence of the Republican electorate. Whether the pundits who railed against him might then consider how little they understand the actual electorate (as opposed to their limited readership) would be an open question.
At that point there would be no knight in shining armor whom some may look to for salvation. If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had wanted to run they would have. The recognition that “ideal” candidates are candidates who would have had to muster the gumption to run should dawn on disgruntled Republicans.
In short, it will be time for anti-Romney forces, who flourish most visibly in the punditocracy and among activists and select organizations, to get real and get with the Romney election effort unless they want four more years of Obama. (And frankly some do, for being out of power allows them to foment continual discontent in the base and posit themselves as the guardians of political purity.)
From Romney’s perspective, if he’s the nominee, he would not be compelled to tack to the center for the general election since he has successfully maintained a general-election sensibility both in rhetoric and policy. He would, however, very much need to remind and reaffirm how conservative an agenda he has already proffered. He’s for a robust and forward-leading foreign policy. He’s against tax hikes. He’s embraced entitlement reforms along lines that fiscal conservatives should cheer. He’s promised to repeal Obamacare. And he’s pledged to nominate non-activist judges, develop domestic energy resources and cut the size of the federal workforce, among other things. The agenda itself should please the skeptics in the base. He will have to convince them he means it.
Romney should also recognize how critical his vice presidential pick would become. He can’t afford to frighten the independent voters whom he will need to carry swing states. But he will also need to demonstrate to the base that he embraces the practitioners of hard-charging and feisty conservatism that is essential to motivate the base and invigorate the conservative movement. On the short list should certainly be Rubio, Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as well as some respected, full-spectrum conservative veterans such as Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
And finally, Romney and his skeptics should make common cause on a critical aspect of the post-2012 political landscape: winning the Senate majority. Romney will want as many bodies as possible to construct a governing majority and the base will want the most conservative Congress possible to promote conservative reform legislation.
Is it too early to think about all this? Not really. The realization that Romney could well be the nominee should counsel some restraint on the part of his antagonists and some recognition on his part that his rhetoric and his personnel choices will, if he’s the victor, be critical to winning over and energizing all factions of the party. In a week or so we’ll get a good idea as to whether all of this will be necessary.