Yesterday had me wondering whether former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is really a psychic. To laughter and cheers from his supporters, he said on Super Tuesday that the race for the Republican nomination was now a two-man race betweem himself and Arizona Senator John McCain. Less than 48 hours later, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who had a very disappointing Super Tuesday, announced that he would suspend his campaign, to allow the party to prepare the national presidential campaign, in the face of a drawn-out battle on the Democratic side.
I don’t know if Huckabee saw that one coming, but it could well be that he saw the writings on Romney’s wall when Romney Tuesday pledged to go on «all the way to the convention». Considering that’s exactly what another recent drop-out, former Democratic Senator John Edwards, said three days before his withdrawal, it wasn’t exactly a good sign.
Technically, the Republican race is still a three-way race, between McCain, Huckabee and Texas Representative Ron Paul, but by all practical means, it’s know down to a one-and-a-half man race. Huckabee might still win a couple of more states in his regional neighbourhood, as he did so impressively on Tuesday, but delegate allocation rules, among other things, will prevent him from mounting a serious threat to McCain. There are very few winner-take-all states left on the calendar, and Huckabee has both financial troubles and momentum going against him.
I’m also not sure whether Huckabee is really interested in challenging McCain. Splitting the conservative vote with Romney in key states such as Missouri and West Virginia, Huckabee could well claim that McCain owes his eventual nomination partly to him. Therefore, I would not be surprised if Huckabee were to step aside in the next few days as well, if only to sit quietly by the phone, waiting for McCain to ask him to be his running mate. The personal relationship between the two men seems healthy, and Huckabee could provide McCain with much needed cover with the Republican Right, on immigration and social issues.
Rumour has it that Mitt Romney, on his part, will use this year’s campaign as a launching pad for a renewed effort in 2012, assuming McCain loses in November (which is by no means a sure bet, and even less so if the Democrats wind up nominating Hillary Clinton). That would make him an early frontrunner of sorts, and the G.O.P have a history of rewarding whomever can lay claim to being next in line (think Ford-Reagan-Bush, or Bush-McCain). However, he has to improve dramatically as a candidate to stand a chance.
First and foremost, he needs to decide on how he wants the voters to perceive his candidacy. In this campaign, Romney’s campaign shifted its focus almost as often as the candidate himself has changed his positions. He started out as the pragmatic businessman with blue-state governing experience, then suddenly morphed into this inauthentic faith-monger to suck up to the social conservative Iowa crowd, and then finally sought to portray himself as the «doer» Washinton outsider. All those Romneys have some qualities appealing to conservatives, but never to enough conversatives at once, and never over an extended period of time. Looking to the future, the Romney camp needs to abandon their belief that the chameleon candidate could focus-group himself all the way to the White House.
For the next showdown, Romney has name-recognition. He started campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire back in 2005 (!), and by the time we got to the symbolic straw poll in Iowa last summer, the Romney win was seen as so inevitable that the media instead turned to the surprise second place showing of Gov. Huckabee, to find the real news. When another second place finish by Huckabee – at the Values Voter Summit in Iowa in early September – again upset Romney’s winner momentum, it slowly became clear that it was still too ealy to put Iowa in Romney’s column just yet. And we all know how that played out on January 3.
Republican voters are not easily bought, but Romney sure gave it a try. Showering Iowa and New Hampshire with advertising and personal appearances scored him two ‘silver medals’, and the subsequent win in his native Michigan, and Nevada, did not provide him with the boost he needed to consolidate his right wing support. Rudy Giuliani’s half-hearted campaign gave McCain little or no competition for moderates, whilst Romney had to fend off simultaneous challenges from bot Huckabee and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson. Much could be said about those two, but on social issues, they are both more consistently conservative than Romney. Romney’s desperate pander to the base on gays, guns and abortion, at times seemed to draw more attention to his previous moderate stances on these issues, than to the apostasies of John McCain on economic issues.
Next time around, Romney should consider running as someone he is – a business-minded moderate pragmatist – insted of someone he is not – a pandering social conservative. By that I’m not saying that he would have won had he only out-flanked McCain or Giuliani, but here we are, anyway, with a McCain coronation in the wings, leaving Romney 3.0 bruised and battered. Romney reveled in portrayed the so-called Reagan coalition as a three-legged stool of fiscal conservatives, defense and foreign policy hawks, and social conservatives. Romney tried his best to be all things to all people, but it now seems like the old Reagan coalition is know longer key to taking the G.O.P. nomination. That miscalculation was what doomed Romney 2008, but if he’s brave enough to learn from it, he could still be well positioned for ’12.
By then he might even have held the same positions for a subsequent number of years. Maybe that’s what it takes?