Why Romney Is a Very Frail GOP Frontrunner

by Stuart Rothenberg February 7, 2011 · 9:00 AM EST

Unlike the Democrats, who almost always at least flirt with off-beat presidential hopefuls and sometimes even pick a nominee who started as a long shot for their nomination, Republicans have, over the past 50 years, generally preferred “the next guy in line” when they select their White House nominees.

Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008 each fit the bill as the early favorite, and each won his party’s nomination (though McCain’s road was more than merely interesting).

If the pattern holds this cycle, Republicans will nominate Mitt Romney in Tampa, Fla., in August 2012, setting up the odd circumstance of the first black president of the United States facing the first Mormon major-party presidential nominee in the nation’s history.

But Romney, who ran a well-funded, serious effort for the GOP nod in 2008 only to lose out to McCain, looks to be a very frail frontrunner. That doesn’t mean he won’t be nominated, only that he faces a tough road ahead if he is to be the nominee.

Romney turns 64 later this year, and he certainly looks the part of president. With a master’s degree from Harvard Business School and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, he’s attractive, smart and articulate, and he has demonstrated executive leadership. In addition, he has already run a national campaign and has a strong fundraising ability.

The Detroit-born Republican ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994 but earned high marks as the CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. The Olympics were a springboard for his gubernatorial victory in Massachusetts in 2002.

Romney entered the 2008 GOP presidential contest in mid-February 2007, dropping out not quite a year later, two days after McCain’s Super Tuesday showing. He won 11 contests, including Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado.

Romney has been active in Republican politics since the 2008 election, and current polling shows him in the top tier for the 2012 nomination. But while he has the same strengths he had in 2008, he also has the same weaknesses, as well as some new ones. And those weaknesses are no less severe now than they were then.

A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney’s religion is once again likely to be a problem for him.

The former Massachusetts governor performed poorly in two key early states with substantial evangelical populations, Iowa and South Carolina, and he must either change that or build a successful effort without those states.

Romney won the Iowa Straw Poll held in August 2007, and he had an overwhelming lead in polls among likely Iowa caucus voters through September 2007. His lead evaporated quickly when undecided attendees started to focus on their decisions, and by December, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pulled ahead.

The Mormon hopeful did well in the state’s Catholic areas, carrying Linn and Dubuque counties, but he fared worse in the rest of the state, where Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, did well. Entrance and exit polls confirm that Romney’s religion was a problem in Iowa and South Carolina, where he finished behind McCain, Huckabee and even former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, and elsewhere in the South.

Romney’s record on health care will also be a huge problem because his Massachusetts health care reform also includes an individual mandate, which is anathema to many conservatives.

The former governor has defended his health care plan, arguing that President Barack Obama’s one-size-fits-all approach is contrary to his own and that the Massachusetts plan is far different than Obama’s.

Some observers argue that Romney does have a case to make as to how his approach and the president’s are different, but that Romney is failing to assert some of the starkest differences.

Close observers of Romney and his team are also concerned that the flip-flop label that many tagged on him last time will continue to dog him.

They insist that Romney’s effort to deal with that charge by trying to present himself as among the most conservative candidates in the race actually undermines his greatest appeal — as a former businessman who understands how to create jobs and can be trusted with getting the nation’s economic house in order (including dealing with spending and debt).

Moreover, as a former officeholder and a repeat candidate who has strong appeal to the party establishment and to the business community, Romney isn’t likely to be embraced by tea party activists.

Finally, the expected Republican candidacy of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who recently announced he will resign his post as ambassador to China, is another headache Romney doesn’t need.

Huntsman, of course, comes from Utah and, like the former Massachusetts governor, is a Mormon. But that’s not the main problem for Romney.

As one insider noted to me recently: “Donors are going to love Huntsman. The press will take him seriously. He will bring some international credibility and be seen as smart. And, even worse for Romney, Huntsman will be a hard charger for the ‘establishment’ title.”

Romney’s strengths remain, and if history is any guide, he should begin the 2012 Republican race as the favorite. But his weaknesses seem even more glaring than they did just three years ago, and that’s why the GOP race now looks wide open.