Eight-vote landslide boosts Romney’s front-runner status

Thank goodness for the Presidential race filling the vacuum created by a New England Patriots bye week. Waiting until 2:30 in the morning for Romney’s 8 point Iowa caucus margin of victory was a bit much however.

Iowa starts the winnowing process. Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, despite having won last summer’s Iowa GOP fundraiser/straw poll and yesterday’s Iowa Coffee Bean Caucus (reported on by Fox), garnered just six percent of Tuesday’s real votes (half what Perry got) and, mercifully, has dropped out. [Please spare us these synthetic campaign gimmicks as well as pollsters who fail to measure the softness of candidate support] Following suit may be Texas Governor Rick Perry, who, despite deep pockets, failed to make it into the top tier. He has gone home to think things over. So where does that leave us?

Romney has a commanding lead (support, in recent polls, approaching 50%, more than double that of his closest rivals) in New Hampshire and seems poised to win the first-in-the-nation primary. That level of support has held since December, as has the support for former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman, all well behind Romney. At the bottom, former Pennsylvania Rick Santorum has doubled his N.H. support in the last month (from 5 percent), and it will be interesting to see what further traction he gets there in the wake of his running in a virtual dead heat with Romney in the Iowa caucuses. This will likely be Huntsman’s best shot, assuming non-Republicans, with no action on the Democratic side, decide to take GOP primary ballots.

Romney won in Iowa with the same result he received in his devastating loss there four years ago. However well he does in New Hampshire, there will be those who will be unimpressed, noting that he should do well due to his vacation home there, his 2008 campaigning there, and from his term governing nearby Massachusetts. The next real test may be South Carolina at the end of this month, a place where social conservatives hold sway and Romney may also have to deal with issues he has so far largely avoided. Santorum should do particularly well there.

Romney was largely spared the negative advertising launched against Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich (primarily by a super-PAC led by Romney friends and former staff that Romney claims he has no connection to, which may be legally and technically correct, but… —heh, heh). That honeymoon is now over, and Romney will be the target of negative ads in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Romney may not look so pretty to the Republican primary audience from here on. But with a divided opposition and proportional voting in the early contests , he should pick up chunks of delegates, even if bloodied. Ironically, savaging Romney as a “moderate” in Republican primaries, should, if he is the nominee, make him more attractive to Independents and disaffected Democrats in the general election.

The most reassuring line I’ve heard about Romney, probably the candidate Barack Obama least wants to run against, is from a Romney fundraiser who said , “Don’t worry about Romney; he doesn’t believe what he is saying.” But he will have to move more to the right in South Carolina, and we’ll be hearing more right-wing fealty from him. Given Romney’s history, It doesn’t take much to imagine the Obama team preparing the 2012 version of the 2004 anti-Kerry windsailing ads.

Like the Globe’s Brian McGrory,  I, too, have dealt with Romney personally. Between his failed run against Ted Kennedy and his departure to save the Olympics, Mitt was part of my stable of panelists for my Sunday morning talk show, Five on Five. I always found him, as did McGrory, amiable, charming and even “moderate to the point of being nonpartisan.”

In his policy pronouncements, Romney was thoughtfully conservative, evidence-driven and generally quite reasonable. After quirky and self-indulgent Bill Weld, Romney took the role of governor and responsible government seriously. Those who remembered his parents and their commitment to public service, and how both were important role models for their son, had reason to be optimistic. That all started to change halfway into his gubernatorial term when he started running for President and faced having to court and win support among more hard right constituencies, nationally.

If he becomes the nominee, I still hold out hope for a thoughtful, rational and even-tempered discussion with Obama about the role of government and how to provide services, including health care, foster job creation and economic development, while attending to short and long term implications of the federal deficit. Yet, given the way money will be used in the general election, and the preference of both the news media and voters for campaigns as entertainment not enlightenment, that hope is probably naïve. Is Landslide Mitt really on his way? We’ll know more as the GOP process unfolds in the next few months.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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