Mitt Romney has become this year’s answer to Mo Udall, the Democrat who tried and tried and tried to breakthrough in the 1976 primaries but always came up just a few inches short.
Romney has had chances to claim the momentum in the Republican race in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and now in Florida. He has done well in each of them, but—like with Udall 32 years ago—never well enough to claim victory. To date, Romney’s only win (not counting his uncontested and largely meaningless victories in Wyoming and Nevada) came in Michigan, where his family name and native son status yielded an easily dismissed triumph over John McCain.
Meanwhile, McCain has scored outright victories in three fiercely contested primaries: New Hampshire, South Carolina, and now Florida. By winning Florida, where independents are barred from the G.O.P. primary, McCain has demonstrated that he can succeed even without what is perceived as his political base, and can now be declared the clear front-runner on the Republican side.
The Republican race will now move quickly. In seven nights, 22 states will hold primaries and caucuses, an opportunity for McCain to deliver a knockout punch to Romney, whose relatively narrow defeat tonight will allow him to press ahead with his campaign.
But McCain stands to reap a badly needed windfall in campaign contributions, with the G.O.P.’s financial base likely to rally around him now that a front-runner has finally emerged.
Similar movement is likely among the party’s rank-and-file masses, voters who may have reservations about McCain (and every other candidate), but who have historically fallen in line once they have a candidate who is clearly winning (even if that front-runner is not the most conservative candidate in the race—like Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush).
And then there is the report that Rudy Giuliani, whose support has overlapped with McCain’s in several big Super Tuesday states, will abandon his own campaign and endorse McCain.
All of this makes McCain the clear favorite in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona and California—and possibly others, like Illinois and Minnesota. Many of these are winner-take-all contests.
And McCain’s February 5 will be made even easier with the presence of Mike Huckabee, who retains a sizable and devoted following among cultural conservatives. Huckabee is low on cash and will struggle to be a factor in more moderate states like New York and New Jersey, but polls still show him at or near the top in Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri.
These are precisely the states that Romney—who has positioned himself as the “true conservative” alternative to McCain—will need to win if he is to reverse his fortunes next week. They are also McCain’s weakest Super Tuesday states. To reverse his fortunes, Romney needs to win them, but Huckabee is blocking his path.
The story for Romney may well be one of too little, too late. He spent all of 2007 trying to remake himself as the candidate for nativists, Christian conservatives, and supply-siders who considered McCain ideologically unacceptable. But it was an awkward fit and produced a backlash, winning Romney a reputation as a slick opportunist. Only in the last few weeks, particularly in the run-up to Florida, has he produced a more compelling and authentic justification for his candidacy, selling himself as an innovative, solutions-oriented businessman.
It’s a style that might have produced different outcomes in New Hampshire and other states had Romney embraced it from the beginning. His failure to do so cost Romney the early breakout victories that were at the heart of his nomination strategy from the moment he launched his campaign
Instead, it is McCain who has scored the biggest early wins. And for the first time since the first votes in Iowa were cast, the Republican race finally has an undisputed front-runner. It’s true that McCain still engenders considerable ambivalence—and enmity—among the conservative base. But that wasn’t enough to stop him in South Carolina, it wasn’t enough to stop him in Florida, and now that he’s armed with the benefits of full-fledged front-runnerhood, it’s not likely to stop him on Super Tuesday or at any other point between here and the convention in Minneapolis.