Tea Party, Shmea Party. Post-election surveys suggest that Mitt Romney still leads as the favored Republican presidential candidate for 2012.
His lead looks especially big in New Hampshire: Almost 30 points.
Does this big lead translate into a smooth ride to the nomination?
That depends on whether Romney's campaign follows the path of George W. Bush's in 2000 — or Hillary Clinton's in 2008.
Here's the happy scenario for Romney: Like Bush in 2000, Romney is the Republican heir apparent in 2012. Like Bush, Romney has the backing of the party's biggest donors. Like Bush, Romney has national campaign experience. Like Bush, Romney faces opponents who can be dismissed as either obscure (Pawlenty, Daniels) or extreme (Palin, Gingrich.)
Finally, like Bush, Romney faces one early bump on the way to the nomination (Romney polls badly in Iowa, just as Bush did in New Hampshire) — but otherwise seems the most popular candidate in most of the early voting states.
So: Smooth sailing?
Maybe not. Everything that can be said of Romney and Bush could have been said of Hillary Clinton. Heir apparent? Check. Support of biggest donors? Check. National-campaign experience? Check. Opponents obscure (Barack Obama) or extreme (John Edwards)? Few visible roadblocks ahead?
Check, check, and check.
Even if Hillary Clinton had every advantage, her campaign was ultimately sunk by two holes beneath the water line: Her vote for the Iraq war and the perception of her husband's administration as too conservative on economic issues.
These two issues damaged Clinton with the most intense party activists — and it was these activists who dominated the caucus states that gave Barack Obama his margin of victory.
Now look again at Romney. The sort of person who writes a big check to the GOP every cycle may see in Romney a competent CEO for the United States. But to the people who will spend hours in an Iowa caucus room, Romney also has two holes below his water line: TARP and healthcare reform.
Hillary Clinton hesitated for months, then belatedly repudiated her Iraq vote in hope of mollifying party activists. Romney has worked harder and faster to placate his internal critics by drawing distinctions between his health reform in Massachusetts and the plan enacted in Washington — and vehemently opposing the latter. At most, we can say the verdict of the Republican base is pending.
How will we know if Romney is Bush or Clinton?
If Romney pulls far ahead in his fundraising — if the more conservative Republicans continue to divide between Palin, Gingrich and others — and if he locks up endorsements early, then 2000 is repeating itself and he's the next Bush.
But if those things do not happen, then Romney faces a grim outlook.
The people who support him are the same people who regard Sarah Palin as utterly unacceptable, both as a candidate and as a president. If Romney does not win early, fear of Palin will send them hunting fast for another alternative. There's a long list available of such alternatives and there's one name that does not get mentioned nearly often enough: Jeb Bush.
Yes, Bush says he's not running.
But if it's January 2012 — and if Romney has finished fourth in Iowa and is plunging in national polls, Republican governors, members of Congress and donors will be asking the question: Who can put together a national organization — and raise tens of millions of dollars — in six weeks flat? And that's a question that points back to the mightiest fund-raising dynasty in the Grand Old Party.