After a sluggish and somewhat silly summer, the actual race for the Republican presidential nomination begins now, so a little history seems in order. Four years ago, John McCain--the eventual Republican nominee--was dead in the water, humiliated by his inability to manage front-runner status, having wasted a ton of money and fired a bunch of staff. Eight years ago, John Kerry--the eventual Democratic nominee--was on life support, having been swept into irrelevance by the passion of Howard Dean and plagued by staff and money problems. This time around, September finds the putative Republican front runner, Mitt Romney, in something of a swoonlet, with Texas Governor Rick Perry--who tickles the Republican base as Dean did the Democrats--sweeping past him in the near meaningless horse-race polls.
In normal circumstances, Romney probably shouldn't be worrying overmuch. Hotheads like Perry tend to flame out, especially if they spend their time questioning the constitutionality of the most popular program the federal government offers: Social Security. But politics is quirky. The Republican Party seems in the midst of a historic roil. The right wing of the GOP is a far stronger horde than the Democrats' left. Even if Perry continues to blow too hard, it is entirely possible that Republicans, in a Limbaughnian frenzy, will choose passion over calculation.
Romney is a much better candidate now than he was in 2008. He is more disciplined, focusing on his history as a can-do businessman and President Obama's record as a can't-do jobs creator. Even Romney's gaffe of the summer--the huffy insistence that "corporations are people," in response to some Iowa hecklers--actually served to reinforce this image, which is not a bad thing. The public seems more in a mood to encourage corporations to produce jobs than to punish them right now. Romney reinforced the image again in a late-August speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, criticizing the Obama Administration for plucking defense-budget reductions from the sky rather than proposing specific cuts. "There is enormous waste" in the Pentagon, he said. "Let me tell you, as a conservative businessman who has spent most of his life in the private sector, I look at that kind of inefficiency and bloat and say, 'Let me at it.'"
Still, I suspect that if Romney is to staunch the Tea tide, he is going to have to become a stronger, firmer candidate than he has shown himself to be. He is going to have to offer a profile similar to George W. Bush's in 2004: "You may not always agree with me, but you'll always know where I stand." Romney begins the contest in a hole on the firmness front; his flip-floppery has been blatant to the point of hilarity in the past. All the more reason for him to now distinguish himself with an inconvenient, but smart, stand or two.