Romney rides again

To win the GOP nomination, Mitt will need to do things differently this time. Here's how.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 14, 2011

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Mitt Romney has been running for president more or less nonstop for the past seven years — and still hasn't figured out how to do it.

Even starting, as he does this time around, as the presumptive front-runner, Romney looks like a long shot to win the 2012 Republican nomination.

Romney's advisors expect the one-term Massachusetts governor to lose in two of the three critical early contests: Iowa and South Carolina.

Despite that, Team Romney expects to win the GOP nod by waging a long "slog" through primary season. By fighting longer and harder, and with more money, than any other Republican, Romney is betting that he will squeak out enough delegates to earn the right to run against President Barack Obama in the general election.

That's a hard road for someone with such apparent advantages. He is far better known, far better organized, and far better funded than his competitors. He has endorsers and supporters everywhere in the country, while others are starting from scratch. Republicans are known to reject first-time national candidates, and Romney is the only one who has run before, in his impressive but ultimately unsuccessful 2008 bid.

Yet the prize seems elusive. There are many reasons offered to explain his problems: his Mormon religion; his reputation as inauthentic (if not outright untruthful); his past moderate positions on abortion and other social issues; the "RomneyCare" reform he championed in Massachusetts; and even personal animosity toward him among some of the Republican establishment.

"He's a flawed candidate for the modern Republican Party," says Ray LaRaja, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

While Romney is weak with socially conservative die-hard Republicans, even his detractors admit that his business background gives him a unique set of weapons to wield against Obama. Call it the Romney paradox: the Republican with the best chance of winning the White House has to find a way to inch through the primaries, without becoming less able to beat Obama.

If Romney is to become president, he needs the country, and conservatives, to come looking for someone like him.

That's why the Romney team says they need 2012 to be a unique cycle, with a long, drawn-out struggle for delegates rather than a winner emerging from the early contests.

But Romney's best hope of winning the nomination may actually be to count on history repeating itself. That would require him to patiently stay the course as he falls from the front-runner's perch, working and waiting for the voters to come back to him.

That's what has happened to the recent early front-runners whenever their party faced an incumbent president — when Democrats were picking a challenger to George W. Bush in 2004, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Ronald Reagan in 1984, and when the GOP needed an opponent for Bill Clinton in 1996.

In 2004, John Kerry seemed dead in the water, but rallied to win Iowa and New Hampshire. In 1996, it was Bob Dole on the ropes. Clinton was famously the "Comeback Kid" in '92. Walter Mondale was almost down for the count, but recovered to beat Gary Hart in '84.

Can Romney pull off the same trick? Maybe — if he catches a few breaks, and heeds the following advice.

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Related: The GOP's top dog? It's T-Paw, not Mitt., Is same-sex marriage the 2012 comeback kid?, Death by handguns, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama,  More more >
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