Why Romney fell short in '08 presidential race
By bowing out now, the GOP conservative leaves his options open for 2012
By the end of his presidential campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was a darling of conservatives. They liked his record as a CEO, a fixer of failing businesses and the Olympics, and chief executive of a state. They liked that he said all the right things on the stump – that taxes must be cut, that Guantánamo must be doubled in size, not shut down, that only strict constructionist judges would do. And they liked his big, wholesome family.Skip to next paragraph
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But Mr. Romney wasn't always the conservatives' favorite in the 2008 presidential race. His relatively recent change of heart on social issues hurt him badly coming out of the gate; conservatives weren't sure if they could trust him. If Romney had captured their fancy from the start, he would not have been squeezed out of the Republican nomination race by a resurgent John McCain, whom some conservatives disdain, and Mike Huckabee, who split the conservative vote with Romney. Ultimately, Romney was the default candidate for many conservatives, after the 2008 version of Ronald Reagan failed to materialize.
By halting his campaign now, Romney has left his options open for the future. If a Democrat is elected president in the fall, Romney's speech Thursday before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he ended his 2008 effort, may well be seen as the opening salvo in the 2012 presidential race. With vast personal wealth at his disposal, Romney could have fought all the way to the convention. But given McCain's prohibitive lead in the delegate count, Romney would have looked quixotic – and could have built up resentment within the party that would have harmed his political future.
In his speech, Romney couched his decision to suspend his campaign in terms of what's best for the party and the country.
Staying in, "I'd forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I'd make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win," he said. "Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."
So Romney is out, and appears the gracious loser, with four years to solidify his standing as a national GOP figure and build his ties to party regulars (read: fundraising). In his speech to CPAC, he acknowledged the disappointment of his supporters, who wanted him to stay in the race – or, as he put it on Thursday, "fight on, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1976."
But in 2008, the Reagan analogy doesn't work. By the summer of 1976, candidate Reagan had won nearly as many delegates as President Ford, and could credibly take his bid all the way to the convention. McCain is way ahead of Romney in the delegate count – 707 to 294, out of the 1,191 needed for the nomination, according to the Associated Press.
Still, the Reagan reference was a signal that Romney has his eye on the larger example: that falling short in one presidential race can serve as a prelude to success next time around. If McCain fails to win in the fall, Romney may look better to Republicans heading into 2012 than he has for the past year.
The question is whether Romney's shortcomings in this race can be overcome in the future. As a campaigner, analysts say, he didn't connect with Republican voters in the way that a McCain or a Huckabee has. He didn't present a compelling personal narrative. Romney was born into a wealthy family, and while he succeeded fabulously in business in his own right, there was no story of personal struggle like McCain's POW experience or Barack Obama's multicultural journey or Hillary Clinton's travails with her unfaithful husband.