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Fighting Head Winds

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Dan Balz
Monday, December 10, 2007

Mitt Romney's pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination has followed a time-tested route with an unorthodox twist.

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His path reprises that of others who began their campaigns overshadowed by better-known opponents. The strategy is built on the belief that winning begets winning and that early victories produce inevitable, even unstoppable, momentum.

What is unusual about Romney's White House quest is that he is neither true dark horse nor formidable front-runner. He is neither the candidate poised to spring a surprise in Iowa or New Hampshire, nor the candidate judged by his fellow Republicans nationally as the top choice for the nomination -- or even the second or third.

He has become burdened by a front-runner's expectations without many of the traditional assets. Losses in any of the early states could significantly set back his hopes of winning -- and that is what he faces in Iowa from a surging Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas.

Romney's candidacy is unusual for another well-publicized reason: He seeks to become the nation's first Mormon president. He has struggled to deal with the fact that many Americans are skeptical about his church and therefore are hesitant to make him their president, and after months of debate, he addressed the issue directly last Thursday with a speech in Texas.

Some Republican strategists consider Romney's campaign to be the most effective and skilled of any of the candidates. The man who built a fortune as a management consultant and venture capitalist and who turned around the scandal-ridden 2002 Winter Olympics has applied those skills to put himself into the thick of a race against better-known opponents such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Romney's wake-up call to the rest of the party began Jan. 8, when he staged a national fundraising telethon in Boston that collected more than $6 million in pledges -- a stunning accomplishment for someone who had served but one term as governor and had ended the previous year with a 5 percent approval rating in national polls.

He led the GOP field in fundraising in the first quarter of the year -- and has shown since then both a capacity to continue raising money and a willingness to dig deep into his personal fortune. He stood out in the early debates -- handsome and photogenic on stage and nimble enough to impress party activists who otherwise knew little about him.

And his team took an early gamble, putting Romney ads on television in Iowa and New Hampshire last spring -- earlier than any candidate in history -- and keeping them running through the year. The costly investment paid off: By summer, he topped polls in those states and forced his better-known opponents onto the defensive.

Despite those successes, Romney's candidacy has fought head winds from the start. Beyond the issue of his Mormon faith, he has been dogged by the charge that he is a flip-flopper who ran as a pro-choice moderate when he tried to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994 and then became an ardent abortion opponent in his presidential campaign.

The challenge from Huckabee in Iowa has become an unexpected obstacle to Romney's strategy. He could face equally vigorous opposition from Giuliani and McCain in New Hampshire. And when the Republican field moves South to states with a high numbers of evangelical Christians, the issue of his religion will face its ultimate test.

Having bet on doing well in the early states, he will now live or die by the results.


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