E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer August 17, 2011

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is a cross between the Little Engine That Could and the big chain store fending off attacks from upstart rivals.

Romney gets little love from his fellow Republicans. He’s always confronting rumors spread by people who ought to support him that the existence of such a “weak field” will soon encourage new and better candidates to get in. The “weak field” line means they think Romney just doesn’t have it.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

Yet Romney hangs on, methodically chipping away, avoiding mistakes and using his financial and organizational advantages to muscle his way through one month after another.

Romney has been lucky, too. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty might have become his main rival but lacked the killer instinct. The rise of another Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, was a twofer for Romney: She would either split up the right-wing vote, making it easier for Romney to get by, or emerge as an unelectable alternative, sending reluctant but realistic Republicans his way.

Enter Rick Perry, who is supposed to be able to put Romney away. Who better than a big, brash Texan to make the Republican former Massachusetts governor look like Michael Dukakis, the Democratic former Massachusetts governor who is hardly a GOP role model.

Republicans denounce class warfare but engage in it all the time, and Perry slipped in a subtle dig at the starchy, upscale Romney when he declared in his announcement, “As Americans we’re not defined by class, and we will never be told our place.” Perry wants a fight involving Texas A&M vs. Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, the son of a rancher and local politician against the son of an automobile executive and governor.

Not a bad start. But in only a few days, the Texan’s swagger has made a lot Republicans long for the excitement of a little buttoned-down restraint. Perry used the term “treasonous” to try to bully the head of the Federal Reserve. He called President Obama “the greatest threat to our country,” which makes you wonder where he puts the terrorists. Soon he was drawing down the scorn of Republican big feet, including Karl Rove, who doesn’t much like Perry anyway.

You call tell how unhappy Republicans are by reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the one-stop shop for conservative orthodoxy. It fretted on Monday that Republicans and independents are “desperate” for a unifying candidate, and that if “the current field isn’t up to that, perhaps someone still off the field will step in and run.”

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, having the Journal’s editorial page criticize the Republican presidential crop is like having L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, fret over the quality of the cardinals who want to be the next pope.

There was also the conservative Weekly Standard, another GOP bellwether, floating one more time the idea that Rep. Paul Ryan really and truly is thinking of running for president, the wish clearly being the father to this thought.

So it’s not easy being Mitt Romney, the man who is right there in front of them but whom so many Republicans keep looking past. Romney hasn’t even gotten to be called the front-runner very often without some diminishing adjective (“putative,” “apparent,” “seeming”) thrown in. Now he threatens to be displaced by Perry.

But that doesn’t seem to bother Romney. Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who worked for Romney four years ago, says he has “a reserve” about him, “a part of him that’s not given over to the campaign or to his audience.” By contrast, says Castellanos, now a CNN contributor, Perry is either “a freight train” who will run Romney right over or “a talking time bomb” who will verbally immolate himself.

The Romney camp is ready with all sorts of arguments against Perry, not the least being that a candidate who says he wants to make government “inconsequential” has been on a government payroll for a quarter-century. It’s a nice counterpoint to Romney, the business guy. And it might not play well in Abraham Lincoln’s Midwest that Perry once talked warmly about secession and then announced his candidacy in South Carolina — in the 150th anniversary year of the onset of the Civil War.

My guess is that if Perry’s freight train doesn’t flatten Romney’s little engine pretty quickly, Romney will keep chugging on. His faith is that of the good business consultant: a shrewd long-term game plan matters more than either swagger or love.

ejdionne@washpost.com

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