The voting has begun. The Iowa Caucuses were less than a week ago, the New Hampshire primary is this week, and there are three more major nominating events in the next month (as well as four more debates). It seems a little early to be making "final predictions", but I think most people get the sense there's not much left to predict. We know who the winner will be; all that's left is the spread. The 2012 Republican primary race has been, to different people, the most satisfying, the most frustrating, and the most disappointing primary season in history, and all because of one man: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Who says he can't excite people?
I have some predictions about the next couple of months leading up to Super Tuesday on March 6th. First, Romney will win every single primary and caucus by virtue of the strength of his campaign organization, contributions, and general candidacy for the presidency. He won't run unopposed, of course, and he shouldn't. No candidate should win the nomination without proving that he or she has earned it. The second prediction deals with which of his opponents will drop out of the race and when. I suppose I could also predict which of them will ultimately endorse Romney (it will not be all of them) and who, if any of them, Romney would choose for his running mate. The first, I don't even want to think about, because it pains me to think of who would be so petty as to not stand behind Romney at a time when Republicans need to unite like never before. The second, I'll save for when Mitt reaches 1,150 delegates.
Three candidates won't drop out until after (Mitt has won) the South Carolina and Florida primaries: former Ambassador Jon Huntsman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Each fancies himself to be more qualified and more appealing than our man Mitt, and each knows they have a chance if they can beat him just once before Super Tuesday. SC, Florida, and the Nevada Caucuses are the biggest contests left, but Nevada is Romney's, as it was the last time. SC is a conservative stronghold, but it went for Senator John McCain, a moderate, in 2008, so anything is possible. Florida is a big prize, so it would be almost as important to the candidates (especially with its higher delegate count). These three candidates are hanging by the thinnest of threads, which is why they need Florida or SC as a lifeline. If they fail, though, then they'll all leave the race and support either Mitt or one of the other two candidates; or no one.
The other two, former Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul, will stick around even if they lose in Florida and SC, and even Nevada. Santorum won Iowa (in some people's eyes), and he has a shot at the top three in SC and even NH. That kind of placement will make him the darling of the Anyone But Romney crowd, which will not let him drop out until at least Super Tuesday. They'll support him with money and organization, as much of it as they can. Ron Paul, similarly, will hang on, even if his only propellant is the strength of his following. But the RP brigade and the ABR crowd have more motivation than just their devotion, real or imagined, to their candidates and to defeating Romney. As unrealistic as it sounds, they're striving to preserve the integrity of the primary process.
No one, I repeat, no one, other than a sitting president, has gone through the primary process as smoothly as Romney is set to go through in the coming weeks and months. If he is simply given the nomination by virtue of only having weak opponents, then everyone will question his strength as a candidate. Winning by default isn't the same as rising to the top. In 2008, Romney lost in a divided field; now, he has an opportunity to win in one, but only if that field is strong enough to actually challenge him. The GOP, gathered so famously by Ronald Reagan into a coalition of foreign policy, economic and social conservatives, has been fracturing into its component parts ever since. That has allowed for such diverse Republican presidents and nominees as George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and John McCain. Now, we have another struggle within the party; but unlike before, we have a chance to choose a candidate who appeals to each wing of the GOP. Romney has striven to prove that he is sufficiently conservative in each area; foreign policy, economic, and social.
For the most part, he's succeeded. His record of fiscal discipline hardly needs to be repeated, but I'll do it anyway. In brief, he turned a multi-billion-dollar deficit in Massachusetts into a billion-dollar surplus in four years, balanced the budget multiple times, cut spending, avoided raising taxes even once, and did it all with a hostile state legislature. As CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics, he similarly turned a scandal-ridden enterprise into an unqualified success. Both times, he refused to take more than a ceremonial salary. His business record requires much more scrutiny than I can provide here, but no one can deny that he knows how to make cuts; cuts which the federal government clearly needs if it's going to regain a sound financial footing.
His foreign policy credentials are a little dicier. You could make the argument there's not much there on which to run; however, that argument would need a little scrutiny, itself. He may not have served in the military or as an ambassador, but he has experience dealing with the rest of the world, both as a businessman and as CEO of the Olympics. Even his time as governor gave him exposure on the world stage. He knows several foreign heads of state personally, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And he gave a major foreign policy speech in South Carolina last October that established him as head and shoulders above most of the field in preparing for the general election in this area. He'll need it to prove he's ready to be Commander-in-Chief.
As for social issues, voters need to decide for themselves whether or not Romney's conversion from personally pro-life and publicly pro-choice to fully pro-life is genuine, or whether or not his pledge to protect gay rights in 1994 was ever meant to include the right to marry; but a letter from several prominent conservative groups in Massachusetts affirm that he did fully support pro-life and pro-family causes as governor. Also, five former ambassadors to the Vatican have chosen to endorse Romney on the strength of his social conservatism, despite the fact that he is a Mormon and they had their choice of two prominent Catholic candidates. While he may not be as conservative in each area as some may like, and while he may be more conservative in each area than others may like, he certainly embodies "all three legs of the conservative stool", as Rush Limbaugh said (once upon a time).
Ron Paul's followers are fervent; the ABR's are angry; and the Establishment, as apparent to anyone paying attention, has been dithering for months now. Romney has his own following, one that is arguably stronger than anyone else's. Fully 25% of the GOP has resisted abandoning him in favor of the successive chain of "Flavor of the Month" candidates. Ron Paul's followers have similarly stood by his side, but their numbers are lower than Romney's followers' numbers; every other candidate's base is even smaller. We in Romney's base have sat patiently and waited for everyone else to come around to certain facts: One, that no one else has the appeal within the GOP that Romney does, as evidenced by the fact that everyone whose numbers have risen above his have also fallen. Two, no one else campaigns as well as Romney does, again, as evidenced by everyone's failure to rise above him and stay there. And three, he's not as hated by Republicans as the vocal minority makes it sound. His favorability ratings are currently at just under 70%, and he's leading in every single demographic except "very conservative"; and even among those voters, he's not doing bad at all. So while he may not be every Republicans' first choice for the presidency, that's certainly not evidence they'd refuse to vote for him if he gets the nomination.
All he needs now is to convincingly defeat a strong opponent or two along the way to the nomination to prove his victories aren't empty ones and that he's ready for the general election. It's unfortunate that certain conservatives have chosen themselves as the opponents whom he needs to defeat, both officially and unofficially, but at least no one will be able to say it was given to him (not that they won't say it, anyway).
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