For most of this year and last, Mitt Romney has run the kind of presidential campaign he wanted to run — on his own timetable, at his own pace, in the places he wanted to go, and with feigned indifference to his Republican rivals. Those days are over.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry has shaken up the GOP nomination battle. The more Perry withstands upcoming tests, the more his candidacy will force changes on the former Massachusetts governor. Romney demonstrated this week that he knows the GOP campaign has entered a new and more challenging phase, and the question is how effective he will be at convincing a party that never has fully warmed to him that he is still its best hope to win the White House in 2012.
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?
To compensate, Romney no doubt hopes that Michigan moves up its primary, giving him a chance to show strength in an important Midwestern battleground state. After all, Michigan is one of several home states that Romney can claim and he won there in 2008. But victory in Michigan has yet to be shown as a pathway to the nomination.
Romney might need Iowa now more than he thought, if only as a place to embarrass Perry, perhaps with Bachmann’s help. Though he skipped the straw poll last month, he and his advisers have always kept the door open to competing there in earnest. Now he might have no choice. Iowa will be an important battleground in the general election in any case. Why not start investing there now?
A top Romney strategist said recently that, for the next few months, there is no inherent advantage in being seen as the GOP front-runner, which might well be true. Let the other hot candidates — earlier it was Rep. Michele Bachmann, now it’s Perry and perhaps it could be Sarah Palin in a month, if she were to jump in — attract attention and see how they hold up. Let them fall of their own weight, if that’s the case. Stay calm through the fall, perform well in the debates and be ready with a compelling message when the voters start to check in at the turn of the year.
There is still merit to that approach, the idea of being the last candidate standing, rather than the front-runner from wire to wire. Sen. John McCain made a similar calculation out of weakness four years ago and it proved to be a winning strategy. His goal was to become the most attractive, if not most loved, choice for Republicans after his rivals had diminished themselves through strategic blunders or other limitations. Given the obvious questions about Perry as a long-distance runner, Romney could hope for the same for himself.
But there are risks inherent in that approach, not least of which is that it puts Romney’s fate in the hands of others. That isn’t likely to be what the Romney team is thinking right now, which is why the next few months will be especially crucial for their campaign.
Romney advisers are in the “there’s no reason to panic” mode right now. Nor do they see a need to fundamentally alter the strategy they’ve been following. But they surely recognize they no longer have the luxury of focusing only on the president and running a general election strategy. As this week has suggested, change is no doubt coming to the Romney campaign.