With the field clarifying, Mitt Romney’s interests now align well with those of one other possible candidate: Michele Bachmann. Both of them have an interest in seeing her do as well as possible.
Like Bob Dole in 1996 or John McCain in 2008, Romney is an establishment-oriented candidate with serious vulnerabilities on his right flank. To get the nomination, he needs (as they needed) to prevent the emergence of a single candidate to his right. So Dole made a tactical alliance with Pat Buchanan in Lousiana, helping to eject from the race the one candidate who could theoretically have denied him the nomination by consolidating voters to his right: Phil Gramm. McCain made a tactical alliance with Mike Huckabee against the candidate against whom both of them were competing and whom both of them hated: Romney.
Which candidate does Romney most need to worry about? In my view, it’s Tim Pawlenty. He can run to Romney’s right, but with establishment support, in a way that I don’t think Daniels or Huntsman can or want to.
The candidate who could play the Buchanan/Huckabee role this time is Michele Bachmann. Like her ‘96 and ‘08 counterparts, she cannot win the nomination but can prevent anyone to the establishment candidate’s right from getting it either. (I think she has greater potential strength in the primaries than Santorum, but if he took off he could play the same role.) So watch for Romney to start making a lot of positive comments about Bachmann.
I don’t believe Romney could win a Romney-Pawlenty contest. But he would almost certainly win a Romney-Bachmann race, and could well win a Romney-Pawlenty-Bachmann race. So to the extent he can boost her, it makes sense for him to do so. Having been on the losing end of this maneuver, Romney, I assume, knows how it’s done.