fter Mini-Mitt's diminutive three-point Michigan "triumph," which was a little like a Roman general being hailed for a near defeat, how important is Ohio? To put it in Santorian terms, it could be apocalypse two; once more, as in Michigan, Mitt will have to avert the sun darkening and the sky falling on his presidential campaign.
Despite the conventional consensus, Romney could still face a near-end of days. And the auguries weren't good as he arrived in the Buckeye State to what should have been the hosannas of excited supporters. Supporters he does have there, but they didn't seem very excited at his kickoff event, where 100 to 150 of them huddled together and offered desultory applause. This was one time where Mitt should have said, "You're fired" — to his advance team, already infamous in campaign history for setting his signature economic speech at the site of the 2006 Super Bowl, and thereby creating a mesmerizing tableau of tier upon tier of empty seats.
This is the fallowest field of candidates in either party, ever.
But Romney, as evidence by his ad lib about his wife's two Cadillacs, can always be relied on to make his own mistakes. He's very good at it, and he can't very well fire himself. Standing in front of a machine that shapes steel sheets into fence posts, with his characteristically awkward half-laugh, he blurted the first memorable sound byte of his Ohio appeal: "I gotta press the button" that starts this up. "That will be my heavy lift in terms of manufacturing."
This stumbling frontrunner can't seem to help himself. He constantly reinforces the sense that he's not real — that he lives in a golden tower and has come out to visit the peasants. After Michigan, where he decisively lost voters who earn under $100,000 a year, he faces a blue-collar, auto-industry-dependent Ohio where they may already have figured him out. He's running 11 points behind Santorum in the University of Cincinnati survey, and seven points behind according to Quinnipiac.
Still he has no choice but to fight and win there. For Romney, the rest of the Super Tuesday landscape looks bleak.
He will capture a lode of delegates in Virginia, but the state is already his own private prisoner due to the political fix that kept Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich off the ballot. The pre-cooked results there will be written off; they can't redeem defeat elsewhere and convince the party and the country that he's locked up the nomination. (And spin-meisters bar the door if the entirely unexpected happens and Ron Paul gives Romney a real run for it there.) Nor can Mitt invoke expected victories in reliably blue states like Massachusetts and Vermont — where he's actually only seven points ahead. Winning there may only confirm the hard-right's suspicions about his true colors.
This leaves Alaska — probably to Paul, the libertarian who reflects its frontier character, or to Santorum, the true believer who most resembles and who's been most kindly critiqued by Sarah Palin. There's North Dakota — a terra incognita where there are no recent polls — which will command little attention on Super Tuesday. But the Tea Party is strong there, and Romney is not their cup of tea. Mormon-heavy Idaho should be Mitt's; that's pretty much the equivalent of him carrying Utah, and won't translate into national momentum.
Weeks ago, a Republican strategist told me that Romney has to win something in the South on Super Tuesday — and Tennessee is his best chance. Some chance: The latest polls show Santorum winning by a 2-to-1 margin. Finally, Georgia equals Ohio as the big prize of the night, but Gingrich has a big lead and Santorum has inched ahead of a flat-lining Romney.
The inevitable but insecure nominee-to-be can outspend and out-batter his opponents — although he soon may have to commit some of his own vast fortune to that ugly task. If he broke through, especially in Tennessee or Georgia, where a surging Santorum might split the anti-Mitt vote with Gingrich, the result could be game, set, and match. But the breakthrough is a long shot, and Ohio would have to confirm and cement it. The inescapable reality is that for Romney, Ohio is now both an essential safety net and a trip-wire that could throw him off his lurch to the nomination.
If he loses Ohio, he could find himself trampled by the four horsemen of political doom — lost character, lost authenticity, lost votes, and lost money. So Romney and his super PAC will train the guns of March on targets from Cleveland to Cincinnati; he will go to other states, but this is where he has to focus. To avoid the gaffes that issue willy-nilly from his mouth and turn him into an out-of-touch caricature, he certainly won't debate. He will be told to stick to the script — no more words without consultant pre-clearance. Now it's unclear that a CEO who's not accustomed to be gainsaid can do this, but it's clear that he has to. He will try to campaign on the economy — and somehow humanize his spreadsheet politics.
Beneath his heavy touch, his glaring lack of humor and perspective, and at times his sheer goofiness, you can see the edges of surprised anger: Why does he have to go through this? He's entitled to the nomination. That feeling, not his wealth, is his fundamental weakness. FDR and JFK were conspicuously privileged, but people were convinced — intellectually and emotionally — that they understood and cared about them. Maybe that's a decisive difference between a wealthy Republican and a wealthy Democratic candidate; progressive politics naturally incline toward empathy. The ex-Democrat Ronald Reagan had it too — and the predecessors he most invoked were Roosevelt and Kennedy. (Yes, Nixon and Hoover weren't very promising alternatives.)
Romney is no Reagan, and he doesn't even dare to rebuke the stunning statement that Kennedy's speech on church and state — Mitt himself delivered a pale imitation of it four years ago — makes Santorum "want to throw up."
Can Romney find ways to broaden his appeal and connect at least a little more with ordinary Americans — and, more critically, ordinary Ohioans? Is it enough for him to dwell, as he did on Wednesday for 4 minutes and 38 seconds, on his love for his children and his wife's battle with multiple sclerosis? Can he respond in resonant terms to other people's problems? Can he summon a Sister Souljah moment to signal that he's more than a stick figure dancing to the latest demand of the ultra-conservatives? He could have spurned Donald Trump's endorsement; instead he assigned him to make robo-calls.
Romney may and probably will survive and succeed in Ohio because Santorum is the most ridiculous presidential possibility since, well, Michele Bachmann — and this is the fallowest field of candidates in either party, ever. Santorum plans to kick the Mitt out of the once and current frontrunner; but he's more likely to push his own ideological foot down the throat of voters. It's plain that Santorum lost Michigan more than Romney won it — alienating Catholics with his screed about JFK, alienating conservatives who want a better life for their children with his hypocritical animus to college, alienating women with his medieval opposition to birth control.
Santorum excesses may save Mitt in Ohio, but he's also pushing him further into the right-wing weeds. Thus Romney felt compelled to pull an instantaneous flip-flop and endorse the Blunt Amendment, which would allow employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception — or for that matter any other health service — simply by asserting a religious objection. Romney's standing with Americans continues to erode as he continues to march resolutely out of the mainstream; it's hard to be elected president with a 33 percent favorable and a 46 percent unfavorable rating.
Nothing is certain except that Ohio is the critical state, and that pandering Romney, for all his efforts, just isn't trusted by Republicans. Maybe Super Tuesday won't be his apocalypse; Politico is reporting a leaked GOP poll showing Santorum's margin down to five points. And Matt Drudge, who's been helping Romney all along, is pitching in again by promoting a third iteration of Gingrich as Lazarus rising from the dead, a far-fetched anti-miracle, but a near-term maneuver to split the anti-Romney vote.
If you had to bet, you'd put your money on Romney — but you wouldn't wager $10,000. And you can bet that when and if Mini-Mitt waves from the podium and stiffly tells the Republican convention, "I accept your nomination," the party faithful will be saying, "Thanks a lot, I guess."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
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