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.
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.
Romney also could not match George W. Bush's ability as a candidate to come across as Everyman – the guy you'd want to have over to your barbecue – despite his own privileged upbringing.
Perhaps Romney's greatest period of personal struggle – his 2-1/2 years in France as a Mormon missionary, living on a small stipend, and nearly losing his life in a car accident – never came up in his stump speech. No doubt that is because it centered on his faith, which he avoided discussing in speeches, except when asked – and, in an emotional high point of his campaign, when he delivered his "Faith in America" speech on Dec. 6. Polls showed a significant number of GOP voters, sometimes more than 25 percent, were reluctant to vote for a Mormon for president.
It is impossible to know how significant a factor Romney's faith was in his inability to catch fire as a national candidate, but it's clear that in the states where Huckabee has done well, the former Arkansas governor and onetime Baptist preacher provided a safe haven for evangelical voters uncomfortable with McCain's secular style and Romney's unorthodox religious beliefs.
Romney's lack of military service in and of itself may not have hurt him, but a comment he made about his five sons‚ lack of service may have dealt a significant blow. He said, in response to a voter's question, that "one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected." After the ensuing uproar, Romney said he "misspoke" – but with Americans dying daily in wars abroad, the damage was done.
In the final analysis, Romney did quite well in a Republican field that swelled at one point to nine candidates. He won 4 million votes to McCain's 4.7 million. On Super Tuesday alone, he won seven states, after winning earlier in Michigan, Nevada, and Wyoming, and coming close in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida. What really put the nomination out of reach for him was the GOP's winner-take-all rules for delegate allocation in many of the Super Tuesday states – most of which were won by McCain.
When the economy became the top issue for voters, that seemed to bode well for Romney. His initial campaign persona as a pro-Iraq War social conservative hadn't caught on, but suddenly his area of expertise was front and center. Romney's best moment came in his native state of Michigan, where he beat McCain in a hard-fought primary on Jan. 15.
"In Michigan, Romney had the credentials, but he was able to strike an emotional chord by tying his economic discussion to the plight of the auto industry," says Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide from 2000 who is not working for any 2008 presidential candidates. Two weeks later, "in Florida, the broader argument about the economy was the same, but there wasn't that emotional tie-in with a local issue."