Ezra Klein argued yesterday that Mitt Romney is a significantly better candidate than he seems right now; Jamelle Bouie responded that, no, Romney really is that bad. I’ve said before that Romney is a generic Republican candidate, so who is right?

They both are, in part.

I agree with Klein (and Chris Cillizza) that Romney has strengths as a candidate that are overlooked. That has to do, I think, with the way he’s winning the nomination, which consists mainly of defeating his most serious foes very early in the process, notably by forcing Tim Pawlenty out of the race back in August. Romney was never going to elicit huge enthusiasm during the primaries from Tea Partyers, but when it counted, he did what he had to do.

But that’s not all there is to it. Romney isn’t just a generic candidate; he’s a generic Republican candidate in 2012. That means he’s taken on a host of unpopular issue positions just to be able to get the nomination. And while he may find an appealing running mate, he’s almost certainly going to be restricted to those who will be embraced by social conservatives and others less than thrilled with Romney at the top of the ticket, and that’s a constraint that could cause problems.

Moreover, plenty of Republican activists, and especially those who profit from selling outrage to conservative audiences, may not be particularly loyal during low points in the campaign, choosing to blame problems on Romney’s “establishment” moderate attitudes.

So I don’t think that lousy polling numbers right now, at the end of a fairly brutal nomination process, really say much about how Romney will be regarded by convention time. And of course there’s every chance that the president will be easily defeated by any challenger if the economy stalls or worse. But there’s a very good chance that being a Republican won’t help this year, and so being a generic Republican won’t be a good place to be.