He’s the early-state, polling and fundraising leader, who may be poised to win both Iowa and New Hampshire and end this thing early, without a serious challenge from anyone.
But no non-incumbent of either party has won a presidential nomination without an existential scare (or two) on the road to victory and it is hard to imagine one of the weakest frontrunners in modern American history breaking that pattern.
And, yet, Romney has a lot of secret weapons up his sleeve that will help him end the nomination fight at the start — or serve him well if he ends up in an extended battle with one or more rivals.
1. Iowa muscle: In a late-starting cycle where even the best organized candidates have laughably little in place compared to past years, Romney’s team has been quietly working for months, with a small paid staff and tons of supporters from 2008, to put together what could be the best organization in the race. Not bad for a guy who has kept expectations low by barely visiting the Hawkeye State.
2. Oppo on all: With months to prepare, the Romney campaign, headed by the meticulous Matt Rhoades, a former opposition research master, has put together detailed dossiers on anyone and everyone who might stand in Romney’s way to the White House. They so far have unfurled precious little of what they have — but make no mistake, they are prepared to blast away at whomever ends up emerging as a threat.
3. The inoculation against Romneycare: Although Romney’s Massachusetts health care venture will certainly come up again, most likely in paid communication, for now, what was thought to be a crippling liability is barely mentioned in the debates and on the campaign trail, either by Romney’s rivals or voters. By getting so much oxygen early on, before most citizens were paying attention, the controversial plan became an asked-and-answered issue in the minds of much of the press.
4. Media cards to play: Romney has pursued a low-profile strategy, turning down most interviews across all categories and platforms. But if he gets in trouble, he can turn to earned media to try to bail himself out. Because he has created pent-up demand, Romney could appear on “60 Minutes,” get ample time on “Meet the Press” and adorn front pages and magazine covers pretty much whenever he chooses.
5. Endorsements galore: State, federal and local officials from sea to shining sea already have told the Romney campaign they are ready to publicly sign on with Mitt, but for a variety of tactical reasons, the campaign is holding them in reserve, to roll out as needed. They can be used to show momentum leading up to the January voting, or serve as a firewall if Romney stumbles.
6. That bank account: No other candidate in the race (with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman) has the vast personal resources to drop in as needed for a flurry of last-minute spending on TV ads and other expensive goodies. Romney has been smart and disciplined about not putting a lot of his own wealth into the race (contrary to his 2008 self-funding approach), but that can change with a stroke of a pen if Boston sees an opening or a crisis.
7. Leading in head to heads: In the latest face-off polls against President Obama, Romney does substantially better nationally and in key states than any of his rivals. That helps him practically and psychologically with voters, donors, reporters and other politicians.
8. Leading in perception: As we hit the homestretch, there is a palpable sense (reflected in polling data) among voters, press, pundits, and even late-night comics that Romney is the most likely to win the nomination — another helpful potential self-fulfilling prophecy.
9. Establishment traction: In Iowa and beyond, Romney remains the only mainline candidate in the race, giving him a near-monopoly on what remains a big chunk of the GOP’s pool of voters. He will have to contest in New Hampshire with Huntsman for this group, but otherwise, this key constituency is mostly going to go to the frontrunner. Even in the era of the Tea Party, that is a healthy portion of the electorate.
10. Knowledge of the delegate rules: If the race goes long past the South Carolina primary and into the spring, Romney’s operation is the only one that has a true, deep understanding of how to win, hold and flaunt delegates. The Obama campaign’s strength in this area was decisive in its victory over Hillary Clinton and Romney would brandish the same advantage.