Michael Gerson: Mitt Romney's improbable achievement

By MICHAEL GERSON Published: January 11, 2012
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It is commonly argued that Mitt Romney has benefited from a weak Republican field, which is true. And that the attacks of his opponents have been late and diffuse. True, and true.

But the political accomplishment of Willard Mitt Romney should not be underestimated. The moderate, technocratic former governor of a liberal state is poised to secure the nomination of the most monolithically conservative Republican Party of modern history.

Some of this improbable achievement can be attributed to Romney's skills as a candidate. In 14 debates, he delivered one gaffe (the $10,000 bet) and once lost his temper (with Rick Perry) — neither lapse particularly damaging. Under a barrage of awkward formats and dopey questions, Romney has been calm, knowledgeable and reassuring.

A Republican nominating process that swerved again and again toward silliness — alternately elevating for consideration Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain — seems ready to settle on a serious, accomplished, credible candidate. Republicans, it turns out, are choleric and fractious — but not suicidal.

The nominating process has revealed Romney's limitations. It would be awkward for anyone this stiff to pose as a working-class stiff, and Romney should not try. But if he gains the nomination, his rival in connecting with average voters will not be Bill Clinton. It will be professor Barack Obama. Again, Romney benefits from the luck of the draw.

Romney has paired his skills with a sophisticated political strategy. His campaign team learned something from the failures of four years ago. Last time, Romney flooded the early states with money and personal attention. In Iowa, his limited return on investment made him a political punch line. This time, Romney rationed both his money and his presence — lowering expectations and generating genuine enthusiasm when he finally arrived to campaign. When a late political opportunity presented itself — in the form of a persistently divided Republican field — the Romney campaign skillfully ramped up for a narrow win.

Ideology has always been Romney's main vulnerability. Running and winning in Massachusetts before running twice for the Republican presidential nomination is a process best described by biologists — a story of adaptation and evolution.

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