Republican Primaries: Mitt Romney's Luck Has Limits

A Commentary by in Des Moines, Iowa

Mitt Romney barely won the Iowa Republican caucuses, and he's likely to become theparty's presidential candidate. The former governor is profiting from his rivals' weaknesses, but this could damage him in the end. If hedoesn't improve his image,the chances of beating Barack Obama are slim.

Mitt Romney edged out rival Rick Santorum by just eight votes to win the Iowa Republican caucuses on Tuesday night. Zoom
AFP

Mitt Romney edged out rival Rick Santorum by just eight votes to win the Iowa Republican caucuses on Tuesday night.

Americans believe that each individual is the master of his or her fate. But perhaps their presidents are just plain lucky.

Barack Obama, a relatively inexperienced former community organizer, university professor and senator, won the election in 2008 thanks to a triad of lucky coincidences. Party rival Hillary Clinton underestimated the young Democrat, while Americans yearned for "change" after the Bush years, and his Republican opponent John McCain turned out to be a weak campaigner.

Obama's ascent began in the Iowa snow. And it is there that fate has once again smiled on another lucky politician: Mitt Romney, the winner of the Republican presidential caucus in the tiny agrarian state. Romney's victory wasn't decisive on Tuesday evening, when he came in just barely ahead of fellow conservative Rick Santorum, a favorite among the religious right.

But Romney is likely to soon become Obama's official challenger in the November 2012 presidential election, being the best prepared for the upcoming primaries in South Carolina and Florida -- unlike Santorum, who has so far concentrated almost exclusively on Iowa votes. Romney's position also contrasts with that of his third-place rival Ron Paul, the idol of young radicals who wants to end America's involvement in wars and shut down the US Federal Reserve.

Lucky Circumstances

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has worked hard for this crowning moment, having been a professional presidential candidate for half a decade. He is also a better competitor than he was during his first attempt in 2008, when he came across to many voters as a political robot.

But Romney is mainly plain lucky. Just like Obama before him, he has been helped by three things:

  • His rivals: The field of Republican candidates for the 2012 election isn't just disappointing. It's amusing -- a kind of circus with ever-changing attractions. But none of the other candidates managed to unite the anti-Romney camp for their own purposes. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann could have been the voice of the influential Tea Party movement, but her shrillness left the ears of moderate Republicans ringing. She came in sixth in Iowa. Texas governor Rick Perry, armed with oil money, came off as broad-chested but narrowly educated during television debates. He managed to just barely beat Bachmann, and has announced he will return home to "determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race." As for the former speaker of the House of Representatives and original thinker Newt Gingrich, he was unconvincing in the role of conservative standard-bearer. Past scandals involving his three marriages and having made millions as a Washington lobbyist were too much for his candidacy to bear.
  • Timid potential candidates: Prominent Republicans who would have made more formidable opponents than Romney's current rivals decided against running because they believed their time had not yet come and feared the Obama campaign. Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, is among them, as is Paul Ryan, a promising young conservative congressman. And, naturally, there is Jeb Bush, brother of former President George W. Bush. Conservatives hold him in high esteem, but he bears a surname that, thanks to his brother, remains more of a curse than a blessing.
  • America's worries: Four years ago, conservative Iowa caucus voters were still concerned about abortion and Romney's Mormon beliefs. Today, the United States is a nation where fears of unemployment trump those about Mormons. The key issue for the 2012 campaign will be "jobs, jobs, jobs" -- and economic policy is one of the key skills possessed by Romney, formerly a successful businessman.

Further Development Essential

These lucky circumstances could turn the Republican primaries into a dull affair that amounts to an easy victory for Romney, though his opponents certainly still have enough money left over for a few attacks on the frontrunner. On Tuesday, Gingrich called him a "liar."

But if Romney manages a convincing victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 10, the Republicans are likely to consolidate their support behind him. That would be good for the former governor, but also dangerous. If he gains the Republicans' support without much resistance, he is unlikely to develop himself further as a candidate -- in contrast to the novice Obama, who had to work hard in the epic primary battle with Hillary Clinton.

But Romney must improve his candidacy to convince the many conservatives who are still skeptical of his multiple changes in position and alleged lack of principles. If he fails to do this, then fate will only be smiling on one politician when November comes around: Barack Obama.

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