One factor that's gone unmentioned as regards Mitt Romney's primary campaign is his status as the sole candidate who displays any grasp of electoral strategy.
This is surprising on the face of it. Certainly career politicians such as Santorum and Huntsman should possess some knowledge of strategy and the aptitude to utilize it, while Newt Gingrich has based his entire public persona on his grasp of strategic thinking, not only as regards politics, but on the more rarified social and historical levels as well. And yet none of Romney's opponents have revealed any sign whatsoever of a strategic sensibility.
Santorum's "strategy" was pedestrian at best, limited to visiting every last county (no fewer than 99 of them!) in Iowa. Huntsman seems to have operated according to the customary GOP moderate delusion that all he needed to do was show up for people to vote for him. As for Newt....well, bouncing from one level of hysteria to the next can't be said to be a strategy.
The same is true of Bachmann and Cain, both of whom seemed to be operating on a day-to-day basis without a deeper thought in their heads.
Romney, on the other hand, has clearly digested the major lesson of 2008 -- and by extension, that of 2010 -- far more completely than has any other candidate. The conundrum facing any GOP contender in this contest is as simply put as it is difficult to execute: to reconcile the moderate independents while at the same time not alienating the conservative core. A hard nut to crack at any time, and on the face of it next to impossible in the wake of the Tea Party revolt. This is what the left has been banking on in their hopes for Obama -- the simple inability of any viable GOP challenger to capture the votes of both groups.
How did the other candidates handle this challenge? Santorum and Bachmann didn't even try, sticking to their social conservative message, perhaps planning to swing toward the center in the campaign itself, unlikely as that may seem. At this point, we'll never know. Herman Cain attempted to bridge the gap through sheer congeniality, and he damn near brought it off before the bimbo stampede took him down. Gingrich attempted his customary trick of boxing the ideological compass from every conceivable direction not excepting the eighth dimension, evidently operating under the assumption that if he kept changing stances and messages quickly enough, nobody would ever figure it out. Even considering the transparent goodwill of GOP conservatives, desperate to find an anti-Romney in any dark corner, none of it worked. (And for those waiting for me to mention Ron Paul, here you go: Ron Paul.)
But Romney has succeeded in squaring the circle. He had to get through the primaries without burning any bridges on either his right or left, to avoid annoying conservatives enough to force them to decamp while at the same time not cutting himself off from the vast pool of independents waiting to be wooed during the election proper. By all indications he has brought it off, prevailing in Iowa, New Hampshire, and, if the polls are any indication, in conservative South Carolina as well. This is a record-setting run, one that establishes new standards for the GOP presidential contest.
How did he do it? By maintaining a studied aloofness from what was occurring in the circus rings surrounding him. He refused to be pulled into fruitless debates, stories of the moment, or passing, meaningless controversies. By not trying to answer every clever media conundrum or swing at every ball that came by, he maintained his aura of coolness, competence, and unflappability despite anything and everything that came his way.
tHat sounds simple, but consider how difficult it actually is. The pressures -- both internal and external -- to respond, to join in the general frenzy, must have been enormous. Romney was certainly not perfect at it, saying a few things ("I like firing people.") that he likely regretted. But he was a lot closer to perfection than any of his opponents, who drove themselves into ever more outlandish stances and wild-eyed statements as they went along. The GOP opposition essentially painted themselves into a corner. Romney didn't even get near the bucket.
Michelle Bachmann revealed herself as the kind of female who tries to overcome missteps by means of ever-increasing exaggeration. Herman Cain said just enough to reveal his ignorance about a number of topics without convincing anyone that he could overcome it. Santorum plunged grimly on, never revealing any other facet of his character than that of the conservative puritan. This could be called "discipline" of a sort. Gingrich simply wrecked himself, and got up, and wrecked himself again, and again a third time. The sense of total self-destruction in his campaign is, I think, unparalleled in recent decades.
But above it all flew Mitt Romney, serene, untouched, and, it must be said, presidential. The drive, discipline, and simple professionalism that this required, in this particular campaign at this point in time, cannot be disregarded. It is an impressive achievement, particularly coming from Mr. Flip-Flop. The insight capable of analyzing the challenge, and the discipline to overcome it, are rarities at best. That they should be so concentrated in Mitt Romney is one of the marvels of the millennial epoch.
This is grandmaster politics, political campaigning at the highest level. It's been a long time since we've seen the like pulled off so cleanly by any candidate. I'll admit that it's a shame that it's not embodied by a candidate with considerably more in the way of ideological sturdiness. But this election is not about ideology, or policy, or anything else beyond running Barack Obama out of town as far and as fast as humanly possible.
Can Romney bring that off? If he operates the same way as he did during this primary season, with the same level of strategic foresight, the same sense of confidence, and the same discipline, then hell yes. Thanks to the efforts of the Grand Historian, he has been effectively inoculated against attacks on his business record. The obvious libels against Mormonism are likely to go straight over the cliff due to sheer rabidity. There is little else standing in his way. Much as we may eye Mitt with reluctance, we cannot do so with doubt. The saint's got what it takes.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.