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Romney's Strategy: Stay in Medal Contention

Romney's Strategy: Stay in Medal Contention

By Erin McPike - November 22, 2010

Washington's chattering class may be consumed with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's presidential prospects, but a popular theory has nonetheless gripped some of that group: In 2012 it will be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's "turn" to be the Republican Party's presidential nominee.

He's been through the presidential campaign crucible before and come up short, then lent a hand to other Republicans and bided his time. For Republican presidential primary politics, it's a rule, and some Republican operatives promoting Romney have bought into it over the past few years.

Bill Greener, a Republican media consultant currently neutral in the coming presidential fight, explained in an interview that in the past, "the general milieu of the party has been, ‘whose turn is it?' That was how doubt was resolved." He went on, "Part of being a Republican is that we hate confusion and ambiguity."

Inside Romney's current inner circle, strategists say they don't put any stock into the idea that it's the former governor's turn to be the GOP nominee. They say it's never something that has been mentioned in a planning session or discussion.

Romney strategists declined to be quoted on the record for this story, as they maintain that they are not ready to map out the next presidential race because it has not begun for them yet. Some of their strategizing, however, does suggest that even though the Romney team may not be banking on the idea that he is next in line, it has colored the team's approach to the current primary process.

A Romney confidante put it this way: "If there's one thing running before has earned us, it's that we do not have to flex or adapt because of something a speculative candidate does or says."

And a top Romney messaging strategist from the last campaign said: "I think one of my main takeaways from ‘08 was that it takes six years to run for president if you start out at one or two percent - on the GOP side at least."

Polls show that Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are in the double digits nationally and in the early nominating states for the Republican primary electorate. Romney, Huckabee and Palin were all part of the last presidential race, and Gingrich considered it; Romney aides have begun to argue that Huckabee and Palin could also claim it's "their turn" to get the nomination in 2012.

Still, Romney has culled support from the establishment in a way Huckabee and Palin haven't. Should he ultimately be the nominee and find himself across the debate stage from President Obama in 2012, Romney will have been running for president for about six years since ending his term as governor, and seven if his final year in office is factored in. At that time, he ran the Republican Governors Association to catapult onto the national scene.

Two years from now, he will have run for president twice, run an expensive political action committee over multiple cycles and penned two books, including the recently released political tome, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King said his own re-election campaign team polled the entire first caucus state and peered into the presidential field just before Election Day. "It turned out that one and two in the polls were the way they finished up in the caucuses," he said, noting that Huckabee was first and Romney was a close second.

"So that told me whoever was there last is first now," he said, adding that winning the Hawkeye State will be difficult for both of them this time due to unique vulnerabilities, including the passage of health care reform in Massachusetts for Romney and Huckabee's role in the release of convicted rapist Wayne DuMond from prison.

Huckabee and Romney barely registered in polls after the 2006 midterms, and Palin wasn't a factor then. While the Beltway establishment refers to Romney as something of a disputed front-runner in what is considered a fairly open field, a cadre of GOP consultants says any of the three could argue that it's his or her turn.

Aides to Romney believe that as long as he remains within a leading trio of candidates he will be in a strong position if and when he announces he's running. They point out that according to polling and conventional wisdom, he is among a small group of front-runners - and that the Republican nomination usually goes to a front-runner.

That hypothesis is strikingly similar to the message he communicated after the primary season began in early 2008; Romney said he earned a "silver medal" in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary after he finished behind Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain, respectively. The talking point was an allusion to his role in running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

McCain went on to win the Republican nomination, but his candidacy seemed to rise and fall on the notion that it was his turn to represent the GOP in the general election.

McCain had effectively lost the nomination in July of 2007, not simply because of his then-moderate stance on immigration reform, but also because of how his campaign operated.

That July came a trickle of campaign staff departures and layoffs followed by a mass exodus, and McCain's campaign was broke and pronounced dead. On Saturday, July 14, 2007, Washington Post political writers Michael Shear, Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza described in a lengthy piece why the campaign imploded. They wrote that it was due in large part to a many-headed monster that was over-spending and operating under the assumption that McCain was next in line and that his eventual general election candidacy was inevitable.

For the next few months, McCain didn't even have a traveling press corps while the surging Huckabee wedged into what was then a duel between Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

McCain became the nominee as each of the other top candidates effectively lost.

George W. Bush swooped into front-runner status in 2000, became an establishment candidate and won the general election. In 1996, Republicans note it was former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's turn to be his party's nominee -- though he failed to give President Clinton much of a fight.

Romney will be operating in a different political reality than McCain had should the former governor run this time; as a multimillionaire, he can afford to keep his campaign afloat during lean times. But like it did for McCain, a wide swath of the Republican electorate and the grassroots have drifted away from him a bit and are enamored of newer, more conservative faces.

But as another leading Romney adviser told RealClearPolitics recently, "McCain weathered all of that because it was his turn."

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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