Has Romney Been Preoccupied With Wrong Rival?

Has Romney Been Preoccupied With Wrong Rival?

By Scott Conroy - December 1, 2011

On Jan. 2, 2008, Mitt Romney veered into unexpected territory when he opened a press conference in Bettendorf, Iowa, by launching into a broad-based attack on John McCain.

The ploy seemed unusual at the time, since it was the day before the Iowa caucuses, and McCain was mounting only a token campaign in the state.

During the previous month, Romney had focused almost exclusively on trying to stem the surging tide of support for Mike Huckabee, who had caught up with and eventually surpassed Romney in the Iowa polls. And in the months before that, Romney had concentrated on tearing down Rudy Giuliani, who led in national polls but was not able to gain a foothold in any of the early-voting states.

But on that day in Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor’s unprompted remarks -- aimed at McCain’s vote against the Bush tax cuts -- demonstrated for the first time his campaign’s assessment that McCain was his most formidable opponent in the long run.

Unfortunately for Romney, it was already too late. Less than a week afterward, McCain would win the New Hampshire primary -- a victory that set him on a trajectory to capture the Republican nomination.

Romney’s campaign has been credited widely for learning from past blunders and becoming a more astute and effective operation this time around, and it has indeed succeeded on a variety of fronts over the past few months.

But as Newt Gingrich has soared, largely unchecked, to the top of the polls with just 33 days until Republican voters begin the process of picking their 2012 nominee, Romney may be in danger of repeating a key 2008 mistake: failing to recognize his strongest GOP foe until it was too late to stop the opponent’s momentum.

For the better part of the past three months, Romney’s brain trust in Boston has kept its focus squarely on Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

But despite Perry’s financial strength and substantial campaign infrastructure, a series of stumbles has left him confined to the second tier of candidates, according to just about every metric. Though he cannot be counted out completely, there is no discernible indication that Perry will regain the standing he enjoyed upon entering the race.

Meanwhile, as Gingrich has surged into the lead in both national and early-state polls, the Romney campaign has all but ignored him, confident that the former House speaker will collapse under the weight of his own political baggage and a penchant for shooting himself in the foot.

Comparisons between Gingrich’s current campaign and McCain’s 2008 operation are, of course, inexact. But the similarities between the spring and summertime implosions that each veteran Republican experienced before rising again from the ashes are increasingly difficult to ignore.

Though Gingrich faces a slew of potential pitfalls, he appears in some ways even better positioned to sustain a wholesale comeback than McCain was at this point four years ago.

Unlike the Arizona senator, who was forced to bet everything on New Hampshire, Gingrich enjoys leads in Iowa and South Carolina and appears to be gaining ground on Romney in New Hampshire -- the former Massachusetts governor’s backyard.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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