Mitt Romney and GOP quest for anyone but him
Mitt Romney has run an impressive presidential campaign by most traditional measures. But he is struggling against the tides of the tea party. Republicans want a revolutionary, not a realist.
So, what is Mitt Romney to make of all this?
It would seem the most sought-after title in the Republican Party these days is: top presidential candidate not named Mitt Romney.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota enters the field. She wins the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa this August. She gets Tina Brown at Newsweek to put a ridiculous picture of her on the cover (a distinction usually reserved only for Sarah Palin). Flavor of the month: moose tracks?
Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the field. Immediately, he's so far ahead in national polls that that "objects in rearview mirror are larger than they appear" thing doesn't even help. He's got the wink. He's got the poker references. He raises gobs of cash. Flavor of the month: fossil fuel?
So now there's Herman Cain. He's got more Americans doing math than NASA. He's got a cover on Newsweek, too, and Ms. Brown is even calling him the "anti-Obama." (You wish they'd be calling you that.) One poll says he's the front-runner, he seems to have the whole debate thing down, and he's even given himself his own ice cream flavor: black walnut, because "it tastes good all the time."
Compared with that, you and your 59-point economic plan and studied manner and middle-of-the-road policies look, well, vanilla.
With each passing week, it is ever more apparent that for Mr. Romney, Election 2012 is both the perfect moment and the wrong moment.
It is perfect in that President Obama, at this moment, is vulnerable. Afghanistan makes him vulnerable. His inability to manage Washington effectively makes him vulnerable. The economy makes him very vulnerable.
For a Republican presidential candidate, it's the sort of race you dream of. You have a fighting chance.
And yet this year, it is clear: Romney is clearly not what his own party wants.
And the party rank-and-file?
They want a revolution. The tea party has put political chum in the water, and the sharks are circling. If conservatives are in no mood to compromise in Congress, why would they do it on the primary ballot? And that, to them, that is exactly what Romney is, a compromise.
In other years, perhaps, the writing would be plain: The party's conservatives are trying candidates like, well, ice cream flavors – indulging their sweet tooth with ideologically "pure" candidates before settling on the only one who appears to have a chance of beating Mr. Obama in a general election.
Eventually, the fact that Romney has seemingly won every debate, has presented reasoned and detailed plans to address the economy and foreign policy, has set up an impressive fundraising network would win out.
It still could.
But this year, when the GOP is taking so many of its cues from the tea party, Romney's Halloween costume could easily be a gigantic question mark. So far, he has been utterly unable to raise his poll figures, even as a cavalcade of contenders has risen and fallen around him like carousel horses.
And at some point, that might have to change.
If Mr. Cain keeps his momentum or if Governor Perry makes a comeback – if it comes down to a split between Republican realists and revolutionaries – what happens then? Will his phalanx of white-haired, wing-tipped political number-crunchers go into battle with him? Or can he channel his inner Che?
This year, at the very least, you have to wonder.