Read the analysis, listen to the pundits, watch the Republican field shape up, and you come to one conclusion: This is a two-person race, Perry and Romney, and Romney will get the nomination.
The argument is that Romney has the money, he is focused on the jobs/economy message, he has been vetted, the long slog of proportional rather than winner-take-all primaries will benefit him, and, finally, the other candidates are more fatally flawed than he happens to be.
Sure, the base doesn’t like him, the south is not friendly territory, he has taken more positions on issues than a weather vane in a hurricane but, still, he pairs up best right now with Obama. And, very important, Republicans smell victory.
Plus, Romney has learned from the last campaign, he has a tighter inner circle, and is running a more disciplined campaign. All true.
But think about this: Republicans are a fickle lot when it comes to primaries and caucuses. They seem to be the Baskin Robbins of politics—there always seems to be a flavor of the month. Last cycle in 2007-2008, you had Rudy Giuliani way in front of the pack, until he flamed out. Then it was the much anticipated entry of Fred Thompson, who liked the late-late strategy of showing up as the closer to critical acclaim. Certainly that was his M.O. in Law and Order. Didn’t work so well in the last presidential election.
Of course, there was Mike Huckabee who tore through Iowa and won the caucuses. And then...
As we all remember, the eventual nominee and early favorite, John McCain, was dead in the water at this time in the cycle. He was out of money, out of advisors, out of support in the polls. But strange things happen in politics.
So, politics is often similar to Mark Twain’s description of weather in the Midwest: "If you don’t like it, wait a minute."
One of the assumptions that is pretty safe about the electorate this cycle, and especially for Republicans, is that they are furious at the status quo, totally untrusting of those in elective office, cynical about the process, and ready to vent their anger at the ballot box.
This does not exactly signal the "safe" candidate, Mitt Romney, as inevitable. Maybe it accounts for wacky Michele Bachmann’s meteoric rise with absolutely no substance or leadership ability. Or Sarah Palin’s initial appeal at rallies and and her ability to sell her brand.
Who would have thought that Rick Perry could leapfrog all the other candidates, including Mitt Romney, to the top of the heap? It may say more about the dissatisfaction and disillusionment of the Republicans than with what Rick Perry has to offer. But now Perry is tanking after bad debate performances and a modicum of scrutiny.
Who is rising? The win in the Republican straw poll in Florida has helped Herman Cain, as have his 9-9-9 plan and his debate exposure. Newt Gingrich, after a disastrous start, has also gotten back in the game. And many are still intrigued with Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum.
Will the Bachmann and Ron Paul voters go to Romney? Doubt it. Are they looking for another candidate (first, flavor of the month, Perry), you betcha! But now they may truly go to one of the other candidates. Or maybe you will have Chris Christie enter or Mitch Daniels suddenly change his mind. In this election cycle, anything is possible.
So where is Romney now? Bracing for the onslaught is my guess.
When the advertising hits, as it did in 2008, you are going to see those clips of Romney saying he is not with Reagan-Bush, he is more pro gay rights than Ted Kennedy, that he is not for overturning Roe v. Wade, that he favors gun control, and is proud of putting in place mandates for Massachusetts healthcare. Perry thought he was the piñata; wait until you see what they do to Romney in paid advertising.
And Romney is walking a very fine line, trying to campaign to this bloodthirsty crowd of primary voters and appeal to a more moderate general election audience. (After all, the Republican debate audiences seem to resemble those in the Roman Coliseum, cheering for the lions. Who are those people?)
All this will hurt Romney as the campaign progresses and provide an opening for another candidate, very possibly one other than Rick Perry. Republicans are still searching and it may go on for a while.
Betting on favorites in politics is very often like betting on them in the Kentucky Derby—it leads to disappointment. Unfortunately, in politics, and for Romney, there is no Win, Place, or Show bet.