Having Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee - who were both polling in the top three spots - drop out of the Republican presidential contest removed serious competition from the field. The person who benefits the most by having popular candidates not run is Mitt Romney. It’s now his race to lose.
Mr. Romney has boatloads of cash and a well-oiled political machine that’s been organized for a White House bid for more than five years. Many on the right question the former Massachusetts governor’s conservative bonafides, and his record in the commonwealth is fair game for primary fodder. However, around Washington and around the country, what’s heard as much as dissatisfaction with his ideology are concerns that he couldn’t win a general election. That doubt can be put to rest, and not only because he’s smart, articulate, has a photogenic family and a track record of success in private business President Obama can’t match.
The electoral map is also shaping up to Mr. Romney’s benefit. This is particularly the case in Great Lakes states that went for Mr. Obama in 2008 but elected Republicans statewide in midterms in clear repudiation of the Democratic presidency and Congress. Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota (which missed electing a Republican governor in a nail-biter) have shown at the ballot box that they’re ripe for a change to the right. Illinois, Mr. Obama’s home state, will probably go his way, but even the Land of Lincoln elected Republican Sen. Mark Kirk to Mr. Obama’s own seat last year partially in protest against the Democratic administration. These seven states make up more than half of Mr. Obama’s landslide electoral margin over Sen. John McCain in the last election.
Mr. Romney can tap into this regional voter flux. Although he served as governor in the Bay State, he can credibly run as a Midwesterner because he was born in Detroit and grew up in Michigan. His father, George W. Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan and president of American Motors, which later folded into Chrysler. The Romney name is still popular in the area, and the Midwest is more fertile ground for GOP votes than New England, facts that obviously contributed to Mitt Romney announcing his last presidential campaign from “home” in Dearborn, Mich., instead of somewhere in Massachusetts.
The conventional wisdom is that elephants need to run to the right to win the nomination, pivot, and then jog to the middle for the general election. That’s not easy to do convincingly, and the past century is littered with Republican losers who didn’t inspire support because they weren’t solid enough. If Mr. Romney can clear the first hurdle in the primaries, he’s off to the races. If he can win, chances are he’ll govern from the right with guidance from a conservative House and a likely - or at least possible - GOP Senate.
The 2012 Midwest opportunity also could benefit governors from Indiana and Minnesota, but Mr. Romney has a big head start, significant organizational advantage and is starting to secure important support behind the scenes. Money isn’t everything, but it does help get out voters. If Mr. Romney can convince some conservatives that he’s a winner, he can lock up the nomination. That’s his biggest challenge. In an Obama-Romney race, Mitt can win.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.