Peeking Out From the McCain Wreckage: Mitt Romney

Facing reporters the day after she and John McCain went down to defeat, Sarah Palin professed not to be thinking much about the next presidential election.

“2012 sounds so far off,” she said.

Of course, that’s exactly the kind of answer that any potential presidential candidate is supposed to give now and for the next two years or so – until the 2010 midterm elections signal the more formal start of the next White House campaign cycle.

And make no mistake: the race is very much underway, and it has been for some time. In fact, there’s already been a poll, conducted on Election Night by pollster Neil Newhouse. It found that among Republicans, 33 percent believe Mitt Romney should be the party’s new leader, with 20 percent choosing Mike Huckabee and 18 percent for Sarah Palin. (Granted, the poll wasn’t actually asking who should be the 2012 G.O.P. nominee, but it’s good enough for now.)

That’s probably a fairly accurate representation of the Republican race at this early stage.

Romney essentially began his 2012 campaign the instant he dropped out of this year’s contest. Instead of pulling the plug with a subdued press conference, Romney tried to use his withdrawal to curry favor with the party base, dramatically announcing at the February Conservative Political Action Conference that he didn’t want “to be a part of aiding a surrender to terror” by weakening John McCain any further.

Then, after months of bloodying McCain as a traitor to the conservative cause (even though Romney had defined himself in Massachusetts in opposition to the conservative wing of the G.O.P.), he abruptly threw himself into McCain’s effort in a transparent effort to win the No. 2 slot on the G.O.P. ticket – which would have given him a significant leg up in 2012 (or 2016, had he and McCain won). But the Romney-for-VP effort fell apart because of McCain’s lingering distaste for Romney and his spineless opportunism and because some conservative leaders in the party – whose minds were also on 2012 – aroused McCain’s suspicions by aggressively and publicly pushing against Romney’s competitors for the running-mate gig, most notably Joe Lieberman.

Still, even though he didn’t get his wish, Romney has emerged from the 2008 campaign as the early ’12 front-runner. He has solid support among the conservative base, though he struggled to connect with some religious conservatives because of his Mormon faith. But because of his corporate background and style, his youthful energy and his impressive communication skills, Romney has the ability to sell himself as a more mainstream (read: less threatening to moderates and independents) conservative than other candidates who pander to the Christian right. With this potential and the support and name recognition he already has in place, Romney is the clear G.O.P. leader.

That said, Romney dodged a big bullet these past few months, because his ’12 preeminence was initially jeopardized when McCain chose Palin as his running-mate. Palin immediately connected with the culturally conservative heart of the Republican Party, a subset of the Republican base (which also includes more traditional economic conservatives who don’t dabble in the kind of resentment politics that defines cultural conservatism). That bond was only reinforced during the fall campaign, with cultural conservatives rallying to Palin’s defense against what they convinced themselves was a concerted push by the liberal media to destroy her.

The threat to Romney was that Palin would expand on this intense base of support during the campaign, creating the kind of broad appeal for herself that Romney can still potentially achieve. Had she done that, she would have supplanted him as the ’12 front-runner.

She got off to a solid-looking start. A week after McCain picked her, Palin delivered a mesmerizing convention address in which she showed poise, polish and humor. In the week leading up to her speech, Americans had heard Democrats tirelessly raise questions about her experience, but her command performance set their concerns at ease. Polls in the wake of the G.O.P. convention found most independent voters buying into the Republican line that Palin was being unfairly singled out for criticism. They were warming up to her and she was a clear asset for McCain.

But she couldn’t keep it up. Instead, she spent the rest of the campaign systematically undoing all of the good she did for herself with that convention speech. The Sarah Palin that voters saw on the campaign trail this fall – and in interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric – confirmed to independent and mainstream Republican voters that Palin was in well over her head. By Election Day, she had become Tina Fey’s impersonation of her, and just 30 percent of voters believed she was qualified to serve as president.

Palin, therefore, emerges from this race as a tremendously polarizing figure. She retains a large and fanatical fan base among cultural conservatives – one that would make her a factor in any G.O.P. primary campaign, and a contender in some states, like Iowa. But she has also alienated much of her party and most independents; it is difficult to envision her assembling a winning coalition in a ’12 campaign for the G.O.P. nomination.

That leaves Romney sitting pretty (for now, anyway) and suggests that Palin might be a bigger threat to Huckabee, who dealt with the same kind of ceiling this spring that Palin now faces (virtually no appeal beyond religious and cultural conservatives). As of now, Palin and Huckabee will be scrapping over the same basic turf in ’12. Obviously, this would hurt both of them – and help Romney enormously.

But, as Palin said on Wednesday, 2012 is a long way off. She and Huckabee can both try to use the next few years to broaden their appeal. Huckabee has been hosting a late night variety show on the Fox News Channel for a few months now, and Palin could be in line for a television offer of her own at some point.

There will also be other candidates in ‘12, any of whom might emerge as the new front-runner, or at least alter the dynamics in a way favorable to Romney, Palin or Huckabee. Newt Gingrich, for instance, is plainly itching to run. A governor or two, along with a few senators or House members, will also inevitably toy with the race, and some of them will enter.

But for now, it can be said that Romney will get what he wanted the day he dropped out back in February: another shot at the nomination.

Peeking Out From the McCain Wreckage: Mitt Romney