When John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate last August, one of the most interesting subplots to emerge was the fate of Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts Governor had gone to great lengths to make amends with McCain over the previous months, raising money and making highly publicized appearances with the eventual Republican nominee after ending his own presidential bid earlier than many expected. Conventional wisdom said that Romney was well positioned to become the Republican nominee for Vice President, and with the economy emerging as a crucial issue, he seemed uniquely well-suited for the role. Obviously that scenario did not play out, and Sarah Palin's rise to national prominence more or less knocked Romney out of the headlines for months. But following a series of Republican scandals (namely the extramarital affairs of John Ensign and Mark Sanford) and with Palin's puzzling resignation imminent, one must wonder if there is a story somewhere that hasn't been told yet - a story of which Romney himself is the author.
We don't know if McCain ever seriously considered Romney for his running mate, but I'm becoming convinced that if Mitt Romney had been asked to run with McCain, he would have said no. His early withdrawal from the race last year coupled with his subsequent activities and the continued strength of his personal organization indicate to me that his target continues to be the presidency. Furthermore, because of his activities over the last year, he has positioned himself to become the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2012.
Some might say that it's too early to be speculating about 2012. However, Romney is clearly working from a long-term plan, and I think it's only natural to chart that plan as it comes into focus. Romney has taken several important steps since last November, and his actions over the next eighteen months could give him the edge over the rest of the field during the primaries.
The first and perhaps most important of Romney's maneuvers was remaining a private citizen. This was no accident. With his business acumen and history as a successful executive, Romney might well have been the only man who could have defeated Michael Steele in the race for RNC Chairman. And despite the fact that many of us would rather see Romney in that role than Steele, staying out of that race might have been critical for Romney's future prospects for two reasons. First, by remaining a private citizen, Romney has none of the responsibilities of party leadership but all of the opportunities. Not beholden to the duties of an office, Romney has nevertheless remained in the public spotlight by building his network and becoming a premier fundraiser. In doing so, he is quickly becoming the party's de facto leader. Second, by staying away from the official party apparatus, Romney has taken steps to remedy his image among movement conservatives. Romney's greatest opposition during the last election cycle came not from the Party itself, but from the grassroots, who questioned his authenticity and saw him as the "establishment" candidate. Romney has taken this opportunity to bolster his grassroots credentials and build support among what is for him the critical bloc of 2012 primary voters.
Romney has also worked hard to define himself as mature politician. He carries himself with class, criticizing President Obama regularly but respectfully, and making sure that his personal life does not spill over into his public life. He often appears on cable TV, offering commentary on current events while remaining a safe distance from them. With a run at office under his belt, he's taken great steps to shed his overly-polished image and become a sort of elder statesman, especially within the Republican Party. With Ensign and Sanford collapsing, Palin checking out, Governor Bobby Jindal not quite ready for prime time, and Jon Hunstman taking a post within the Obama administration, Romney suddenly looks like the only adult in the room.
Additionally, Romney has by chance found himself uniquely attuned to the great concern of the day - the economy. With unemployment continuing to rise and debt set to skyrocket, it is becoming obvious that President Obama's economic policy is failing. Furthermore, Obama has shed all pretense of fiscal responsibility, leading growing numbers of independents to search for a new standard-bearer. With his business pedigree and history of turning around failing institutions, Romney is looking increasingly appealing. If a recovery does not come soon - and given the effectiveness of Obama's early reforms, I'm not holding my breath - Romney will be very well positioned for the race.
There will be obstacles, of course, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and there is still a chance that circumstances will change radically. However, right now it appears that Mitt Romney has the greatest potential to seize the Republican nomination in 2012. Right now, Mitt Romney is on the rise.
Romney Emerges As Top Issues Play to His Strengths, Gerald F. Seib, Wall Street Journal, 7.3.2009.
Why Mitt Romney's Star is Rising, Matt Lewis, Politics Daily, 7.4.2009.