Of course, this isn’t really news. For the past eight months or so, Romney as the Republican standard-bearer has seemed inevitable.
Well, inevitable to everyone except the Republican Party’s base, conservatives who are troubled by Romney’s resume, including his moderate record as governor of Massachusetts, his lack of set-the-woods-on-fire culture-warring, his fingerprints on health-care reform that inspired Obamacare, and his Mormon faith.
A series of challengers were thus propelled to the front of the Republican line. Yet, the rise of each — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, etc. — was met with a similarly fantastic decline.
By April, the field had narrowed to Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Gingrich, who over the weekend was speaking of his 2012 campaign in the past tense. “I’m glad I did this,” but “it turned out to be much harder than I thought,” Gingrich was quoted in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.
With a 2-to-1 advantage in Republican delegates and several bruises from the past few months of primary politicking, Romney could say the same thing.
He will come into the general election against Barack Obama with several weaknesses. Thus far, Virginia and Florida are Romney’s only Southern victories; and he underperformed in Florida’s Panhandle, which is most like the rest of the South. In Virginia, Santorum and Gingrich weren’t on the ballot.
Romney’s conservative foes forced him to take uncomfortable swings to the right on immigration, health-care policy and other hot-buttons that turn off centrist voters.
Romney’s defenders have a credible response to primary losses. They can argue that states like Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana might not have liked Romney in the primary but they will surely favor him over Obama in the general election.
The ideological swing to the right might be more problematic. In trying to portray himself as a conservative — “severely conservative” as he put it earlier this year — Romney has shown that he is a bad actor. His record as governor makes it difficult to envision Romney as the desk-pounding, fire-breathing extremist Tea Partiers clamor for.
The big question for voters confused by his varied stances on the same issue might be: Exactly what does Mitt Romney believe?
Democrats will do their best to fill in that description between now and Election Day. Same goes for Republicans who have already started selling a vision of President Obama as an incompetent who is in over his head.
Our prediction is that the fighting will be intense, producing much more heat than light.