Politics & Policy

Mitt Romney’s Endurance Race

Michigan is a very big deal.

Today marks Mitt Romney’s formal announcement that he’s running for the presidency, and though he’s generated a lot of excitement, he’s got a long way to go. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are the clear frontrunners with Romney a distant third. Making matters worse, all of the other candidates — especially the most conservative ones — are busy using Romney as a punching bag.

“It’s a really weird dynamic,” says Jordan Gehrke, a political consultant from Romney’s home state of Michigan. “Everyone is making two assumptions. One, that McCain is the clear frontrunner as Giuliani currently lacks campaign infrastructure; and two, that because McCain is a moderate he’ll be vulnerable if you run to the right of him in the primary. So nobody’s beating up on the frontrunner, they’re just trying to clear the field.”

So until Giuliani enters the race in earnest, Romney is seen as the only real threat to McCain’s dominance. Romney emerged early portraying himself as the “Reagan conservative” alternative to McCain and has a massive national fundraising network, and as such every other would be conservative challenger to McCain has Romney in the crosshairs.

Unfortunately, Romney’s abortion reversal has made his opponents’ job a little too easy. Running for Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney famously declared that abortion should be “safe and legal” and that he would “support and sustain” Roe v. Wade. Romney now claims to be pro-life as a result of his attempts as a governor to grapple with the ethical issues surrounding cloning, but many find his conversion story far from convincing.

Sam Brownback supporters handed out literature against Romney last month at Washington’s annual pro-life march commemorating the anniversary of the Roe decision. “Even though all those YouTube videos of Romney’s debate with Kennedy in 1994 don’t have a ‘paid for’ tagline, they’re coming from somewhere,” notes another political consultant who asked not to be identified.

Making Romney’s job even more difficult, McCain has been making the most out of his perfect pro-life voting record — potentially a saving grace with the socially conservative primary voters he needs to court.

So far McCain has run a brilliantly executed hardball campaign against Romney — outflanking Romney on the Right, even as Romney tries to position himself as the true conservative candidate. Nowhere is that more evident than the nascent Michigan campaign. In deference to Pennsylvania, Michigan may very well be the keystone state as far as the 2008 G.O.P. primary is concerned.

Though there’s still some jockeying around in the primary schedule that may yet occur, so far the Michigan and South Carolina primaries are slated to occur on the same day immediately following the New Hampshire primary. If McCain wins Iowa, New Hampshire, or both, a win in Michigan — a swing state with a large number of electoral votes — likely locks up the nomination for him. If McCain loses either one of those states, McCain will need to win Michigan, a state he won in 2000. Consecutive losses could put him in real trouble, whereas a win puts him in the driver’s seat.

The same holds true for Mitt Romney. If the former Massachusetts governor manages to pull off a win in neighboring New Hampshire, he will head into his adopted home state with huge momentum and have a chance to deliver a crippling blow to McCain. If he loses New Hampshire though, he will be forced to make a stand in Michigan, which he’ll need to win to remain a viable candidate. Any way you slice it, Michigan is a very big deal.

Romney’s father is a former three-term governor of the state and his name recognition there is at 80 percent according to a recent poll in the Lansing State Journal. It’s clear he’s staking a lot on winning the state; he’s building sizeable campaign headquarters in Oakland County, and it’s no coincidence Romney is making his formal announcement from the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.

Of course, McCain has already secured the support of key players in the state. Michigan’s formidable Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob as well as national committeewoman Holly Hughes and Attorney General Mike Cox have thrown their support behind McCain. And despite not being the prodigal wolverine, McCain has been racking up endorsements in the state. Aside from both of the state’s committeemen, seven Republican-party district captains just issued a press release throwing their support behind McCain.

Chuck’s son, John, who ran the campaigns of Cox and Secretary of State Terri Land, is a political consultant spearheading McCain’s effort in the state. So far, he has landed one body blow after another to Mitt Romney. When last year I reported on the McCain-Romney race, more than one political observer harshly criticized the fact that Yob the younger had recently managed an ill-advised and unsuccessful Senate campaign for hard-right candidate Jerry Zandstra.

However, during the course of the election Zandstra established serious name recognition in the state as well as staunch pro-life credentials. On Monday (Feb. 12) — the day before Romney made his formal announcement, a press release came over the transom announcing the formation of “Taxpayers for Life,” a new group whose name seems almost super-engineered to target conservatives. According to the release, “the group strives to end Romney’s Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Care funding of abortions.” The contact on the release? Jerry Zandstra. (It should, however, be noted that despite his ties to the Yobs, Zandstra is also on Brownback’s steering committee.)

But far more damning than the Taxpayers for Life development, that same day Fox News reported that three state reps in Michigan who previously pledged support to Romney are switching their support to McCain.

According to Fox, one of the state reps, Judy Emmons, “said part of the decision came down to Romney’s position on abortion, and a conservative conversion that has plagued Romney since he entered national politics.” Obviously, this could cast a pall over Romney’s morning announcement. While it’s not clear what prompted this yet, the timing and ties to McCain put the Yobs’ fingerprints all over the event.

Despite all of this, Romney is far from down for the count. Romney has significant support in state politics — including the House minority leader Craig DeRoche, and a few members of the state’s congressional delegation. He also has plenty of money in the bank, and everyone agrees that he has talent as a retail politician that only comes along once in a generation.

Further, there’s still a long time between now and the primary, and it’s entirely possible that these attacks against Romney are premature — most of the damage will have been done at a time when Romney isn’t quite in the media spotlight. For now, the biggest criticism of Romney remains that he’s style over substance. Surviving the slings and arrows of his opponents should not only prove his detractors wrong, but it could prove to be the biggest hurdle for Romney in his quest for the White House. If Romney had any doubt about whether his race for the presidency has begun in earnest, he won’t after today.

– Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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