Romney is now in a real contest for the Republican nomination — not that he didn’t always expect it — and it’s apparent that he knows it. He no longer has the luxury of focusing just on President Obama, as he has been doing for months. Now he must define himself in the context of the new Republican Party, outline where he wants to take his party and the country if he becomes president and make some real decisions about where to stand and fight.
The first indication that Romney recognizes the new shape of the race came when he addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in San Antonio and took an unmistakable shot at Perry (without naming him) as one of the “career politicians” who got the country into the mess it’s in.
His advisers have been telegraphing that strategy since the weekend Perry jumped in. It will be the career business executive versus the career politician. Romney advisers believe that the climate favors the outsiders, if Romney can make that case persuasively, given that he failed to do so consistently the last time he ran. It might not be easy, given that he first ran for office in 1994, won election as governor in 2002 and has been running for president virtually ever since.
The second indication of Romney’s awareness that he has shortcomings to deal with came when he decided to address a tea party rally in New Hampshire on Sunday and then agreed to appear, after saying he would not, at a Labor Day candidate forum hosted by tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Up to now Romney has said nice things about the tea party but never really embraced the movement.
Taken together, the shot at Perry and the overture to the tea party underscore two realities: first, that Romney’s “front-runner” status was always overstated, and second, that he has been slow to employ a strategy designed to win over or at least neutralize the segment of the party that is likely to play an outsized role in determining who wins the nomination next year.
Those moves also highlight another question for Romney and his team, which is whether he has squandered many months of this year through his meager public schedule and his limited attention to two of the three most important early states in the primary calendar, Iowa and South Carolina.
Romney’s state-by-state strategy has been built around winning New Hampshire and still is. But if Perry were to win Iowa, he would be well positioned to win the always-crucial primary in South Carolina, which could then become a springboard to the other states on the calendar. South Carolina was not hospitable country for Romney in 2008. Will it be better this time around?