In the aftermath of Mitt Romney's victories in the Iowa caucus last week and the New Hampshire primary just two days ago, I've been hearing it all:
- Romney's nomination is inevitable.
- That may be so, but he can't beat Barack Obama.
- In fact, opinions about whether Romney can or can not win the election are all over the map. Everyone seems to have an opinion on that.
In 1988, it went to George H.W. Bush, who served for eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president after coming in second to Reagan in the GOP's 1980 presidential nomination race.
The runnerup to Bush 41 in '88 was Bob Dole, who was given the 1996 nomination after Bush 41 had been elected and then sought a second term.
In 2008, John McCain, who lost to George W. Bush in 2000, won the nomination. And now, it's Romney's turn.
That doesn't sit well with conservative Republicans, who frequently complain that their party's nominees aren't real conservatives.
Granted, I consider myself a centrist. I'm not qualified to pass judgment on anyone's conservative credentials, but I was a bit taken aback yesterday when I heard a conservative acquaintance loudly asserting that — with the exceptions of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — no Republican nominee in the last half century was a conservative.
I mean, I always thought that Richard Nixon was a conservative, but this guy pointedly disputed that. I suppose conservatives still hold it against Nixon that he created the Environmental Protection Agency, but they voted for him, anyway, when the alternative was much farther to the left.
That, it seems to me, was always part of Nixon's problem. Republicans liked him well enough to vote for him, but they didn't love him, and Nixon wanted to be loved.
Maybe that is why I was drawn to a comment by Ari Fleischer, Bush 43's press secretary, for CNN.com.
"Republicans like Romney," Fleischer writes. "They think he's qualified. But they don't love Romney and many worry about his core convictions."
Polls tend to reflect that. Roughly three–fourths of Republicans are said to favor anyone who is "not Romney," but they can't agree on who that should be.
No one can say Republicans haven't examined all their options. Every other Republican in the field has been given his/her moment under the microscope and been found to be lacking. Romney may prove to be a flawed nominee — or a flawed president — but the conservatives have not coalesced behind an alternative, and, barring an unexpected twist of fate, I'm inclined to agree with Charlie Cook, who is among those who say Romney's nomination is inevitable.
Things might have been different if one of the party's right–wing heavyweights had entered the race, but they all declined to do so.
I don't know if Romney's nomination really is inevitable. I've been studying presidential politics for a long time, and I know that just about anything is possible — until it becomes a mathematical impossibility.
If Romney manages to win South Carolina, he won't be a mathematical lock to win the nomination. But most of his challengers will find it difficult to continue with financial resources drying up and the top political operatives gravitating to the apparent winner.
In the meantime, Romney will gain momentum in his drive for inevitability.