Remember what happened. He started early to organize states like Iowa and New Hampshire. He started airing television commercials in the spring of 2007. He won the Iowa straw poll and went to the front of the line as the favorite to win the caucuses. He took the lead in New Hampshire, thanks to the implosion of John McCain’s campaign in the summer.
At that point, Romney’s strategy seemed to be working. Instead, it led to his unraveling. Three things happened to produce his sudden change in fortunes, none of which was foreseen.
First, with both McCain and Rudy Giuliani on the sidelines in Iowa, Mike Huckabee capitalized on his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll to become the darling of social conservatives in Iowa and quickly rose to the top of the polls there. Romney’s campaign concluded that they had no choice but to engage in what became a nasty battle in the state.
Second, McCain rose from the ashes in New Hampshire, as unlikely a political resurrection as Newt Gingrich’s rise has been this year. Romney’s only hope of gaining the nomination was to win New Hampshire, and he had no choice but to engage in what became an even nastier fight there.
Third, Giuliani cut and ran from New Hampshire in early December 2007. That left an opening to tens of thousands of moderate Republicans and independents for McCain to mine — and a mountain of a problem for Romney to scale.
Romney’s strategy suddenly became a trap from which he couldn’t easily escape. He was like a single wrestler facing tag-team opponents. Whenever Romney was locked down in Iowa against Huckabee, McCain had a free hand in New Hampshire. When Romney tried to turn his attention to New Hampshire, Huckabee would keep marching through the caucuses.
When Romney lost both Iowa and New Hampshire, his campaign was essentially over. He went on to win elsewhere, but he no longer controlled his own fate. Weakened in South Carolina, he was dependent on Huckabee to block McCain’s strengthening campaign, and Huckabee failed. Flummoxed in Florida, Romney saw all hope for the nomination dissipate with McCain’s victory in the Sunshine State.
Fast-forward to this year and see the differences. Romney’s campaign advisers say their strategy is based on two major assumptions: No state will determine Romney’s fate, and delegates matter.
Others will have a different view. If there is one state that matters to Romney, they will argue, it is New Hampshire. A loss there could be crippling, especially if it follows a loss in Iowa. Other favorites in New Hampshire have lost the state-- Walter Mondale in 1984, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000--and survived to win the nomination. The difference is that each of those three had won Iowa.
But put that aside for a moment and look at what is actually happening to Romney this year. He started by playing down the importance of Iowa to his campaign, to the point that he has genuinely lowered expectations there. He did that on the correct assumption that the makeup of the Iowa electorate does not favor him and that some other candidate would begin to consolidate the conservatives who dominate there.
Remarkably, no one to date has been able to do that. At one time or another, it looked like Huckabee (had he run), Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry or possibly Herman Cain might have the inside track. None has. Some have long thought that Rick Santorum might eventually gain the traction to emerge because he supposedly fits the electorate in Iowa. He is running out of time. Ron Paul has risen in Iowa, but his constituency is not one that generally wins caucuses.
That has left Romney with an unexpected opportunity in the Hawkeye State. He has the money to invest in TV ads and direct mail. Santorum and Bachmann have spent plenty of time there, but Cain, Perry and Gingrich have not, which means Romney is not that far behind them in days spent wooing Iowans in town hall meetings.
Gingrich is growing stronger in Iowa, but Romney can make a run for the state. Assuming he doesn’t collapse there and finish well back in the pack, his December efforts could be almost cost-free. A loss is already baked into assumptions of the political community. A victory would be seen as a big deal.
Right now, no one is firing at him, and he hasn’t had to deal with the kind of back-and-forth that cost him against Huckabee in the last campaign. The respite could be interrupted over the next 30 days as Romney and Gingrich measure each other’s relative strengths. But the calculus is different for Romney this year, and he is taking advantage of it.
New Hampshire is also different this time. He remains the front-runner there, and, as in Iowa, it isn’t clear who will be his main competition. Jon Huntsman hoped it would be himself. So far it isn’t. It certainly could be Gingrich, thanks to the turnaround in his fortunes, the endorsement he received from the New Hampshire Union Leader and the unpredictability of Granite State voters when it comes to putting front-runners in their place.
Gingrich has a long climb in New Hampshire, though given the state’s history, not an impossible one. His hope is to win Iowa, give Romney a run in New Hampshire and settle the nomination in South Carolina and Florida.
So, Romney’s strategy is almost the inverse of four years ago. Instead of winning early and often, the campaign is looking for ways to survive potential adversity and if necessary stretch out the nomination contest beyond the first few states.
That appears to be his defensive play, but there’s more in his playbook. Romney’s campaign advisers said months ago that they saw no virtue in claiming the mantle of front-runner early in the race. All it would do is prompt others to chew Romney up. So they have lived with the criticism that Romney can’t get above 25 percent in the polls, or that he is a weak front-runner.
The virtue of that approach is that, for a whole variety of reasons, some of them inexplicable, Romney has escaped the kind of attacks that front-runners always attract. Through all the debates, Romney has rarely taken the kind of hits that generally go with his standing.
Maybe that’s because others fear that attacking him will hurt them as much as Romney. Or they lack the positive appeal that gives Romney some protection from a backlash by voters. But the record is clear: Romney has gotten away with something for most of this year — which is why President Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee are the leading attack on Romney.
The most common mistake in politics is to wage the last campaign. Romney certainly hasn’t done that so far this year. From top to bottom, his campaign is built on different assumptions and a different approach. He may not be loved by the base, but will that really be necessary to cinch the nomination?
Now that the caucuses and primaries are almost upon us, Romney and his advisers are likely to amp up their operation. If there are openings, they will try to take advantage. If there are weaknesses in their opponents, they will try to exploit them. If Republicans want to beat Obama, they will argue, above all, that Romney is the one to do it. And if he can avoid the traps of 2008, above all, he will do everything he can to avoid them.
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