Is Mitt Romney underrated?
That question hasn’t been asked much during the former Massachusetts governor’s run for the 2012 presidential nomination. In fact, the dominant story line when it comes to Romney is the exact opposite — that someone with his résumé who was widely seen as the runner-up in the 2008 Republican presidential race should have long ago wrapped up the GOP nod.
Perhaps. But consider the following:
●Romney is a Mormon in a party where evangelical voters hold considerable sway. Although no one in Romney world will admit it, it’s clear that the skepticism with which evangelical voters view Mormonism has complicated Romney’s path to the nomination. In any state where evangelicals have composed more than half of the Republican primary or caucus electorate, Romney has lost.
●Romney is a moderate (tonally, at least) in a party that wants red-meat conservatism. The rise of less-than-serious candidates such as reality TV star Donald Trump and businessman Herman Cain was built on their willingness to channel the anger that the base feels toward President Obama. Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought to tap into that sentiment, accusing the incumbent of being a “socialist” who is prosecuting a “war on religion.” Contrast that with Romney, who has avoided the sort of dog whistles to the base that would say “I am one of you.”
●Romney has a Northeastern base in a Southern party. Romney has used the four years he spent as governor of Massachusetts in the middle of the last decade as a punch line in his speeches for years. But it’s no laughing matter in a Republican party that has been dominated by the South over the past two decades or so. The 1994 Republican majority was built on gains in the South, and it’s no accident that the last GOP president’s prior job was governor of Texas.
●Romney’s signature legislative achievement is health care. The single most unifying force within the Republican Party over the past three years was opposition to Obama’s health-care law. And although Romney insists that the federal law and the state law he shepherded to passage have little resemblance, it’s still the most well-known accomplishment of his four years as governor. That Romney has been able to escape without significant blood-letting on the issue is something just short of a political miracle.
Imagine a generic candidate with the four problems listed above. Could you find five smart GOP strategists who would predict that the candidate would end up as the Republican nominee? No way.
And yet, here we are. His Louisiana defeat Saturday night notwithstanding, Romney is the near-certain Republican nominee — although when he will officially wrap up the race remains indeterminate.
“Romney has a good team, and he stuck with them,” said Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist. “In terms of organization, money and political team, he’s built a formidable operation that has weathered a lot of storms. He’s a better candidate than four years ago.”
That Romney finds himself in the pole position is due to a series of factors. First, he has focused relentlessly on raising money for the campaign rather than dipping deep into his own personal wealth to fund the operation. (In his 2008 bid, Romney gave his campaign $44.6 million; he has yet to make a single personal donation this time around.) Second, he has used his financial might to build state and national political organizations unparalleled in the field. And third, Romney has benefited from a deeply flawed set of opponents, none of whom has been able to put together a sustained challenge to him.
“He was the best, best-funded and most-organized of the group, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a world-class candidate,” said Fred Davis, a media consultant who helped guide former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign this year.
Davis is right. Romney is no world-beater as a candidate. He is awkward and somewhat tin-eared, and can seem aloof. And yet, when you scan the hurdles — demographic and ideological — that Romney has overcome to emerge as the all-but-certain Republican nominee, it’s clear that he doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s accomplished.
“There comes a time when voters are looking for more than spirited speechmaking and grand promises and seek a leader who actually has clearly proven an ability to get something done,” said Fred Malek, a GOP strategist and major donor. “The fact that Romney has demonstrable and significant accomplishments in three diverse fields is starting to sink in and build confidence.”