Mitt Romney cruised through 2011 on the idea that he was the most electable conservative candidate. And, for the first two weeks of 2012, it looked as if he were about to prove it. He won a narrow victory in the conservative stronghold of Iowa and a landslide in the more moderate New Hampshire.
But that’s when everything changed. Opponents began to question his record and his ideological bona fides, with attacks on his former company, Bain Capital, and his past as a moderate governor of Massachusetts. His victory in Iowa slipped away after a recount, and voters in South Carolina rejected him—by a double-digit margin—in favor of Newt Gingrich, a son of the South. More important, Romney handled himself poorly throughout, with a major fumble on the issue of his tax returns, and his low, low tax rate (13.9 percent on an income of $45 million, if you were wondering).
In a little more than a week, Romney lost his lead in the Palmetto State, lost the state itself, and lost his lead in the next battlefield, Florida. Even if he remains strong as a potential nominee—and he does—some Republican leaders are worried that he’s too unpopular within the party and too weak for a general election. Hence, they want someone new.
William Kristol—previously known for championing the Iraq War and Sarah Palin—is leading the charge for a change that conservatives can believe in. His goal? To draft former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels into the race and put him in a position to win the nomination or—if worse comes to worse—a brokered convention in August. He has set up a website—runmitchrun.com—and is on something of a press tour, spreading the gospel of Mitch on Fox News and enlisting the help of conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who praised Kristol for “demanding better, long after the rest of us have given up.”
Of course, Douthat doesn’t think that it would work—"The scenario he’s seeking almost certainly won’t happen”—and he’s absolutely right. The best-case scenario is that Daniels enters the race today and begins to file for as many ballots as possible. Even still, he’s missed the filing deadlines for the states with 42 percent of all delegates, and because of the logistics involved, he might not be on an actual ballot until March. By the time his campaign is up and running, his opportunities for winning delegates will have dwindled dramatically. More important, someone else will have won those contests and will be in a strong position to win the nomination.
If, somehow—through enthusiastic support of establishment leaders—Daniels were to win enough delegates to force a brokered convention, he would put the Republican Party in a terrible bind. For as much as we like to talk about Republican “elites,” the truth is that the term refers to a whole constellation of people within the party, from D.C.-based operatives to grassroots organizers. Daniels might win the support of the former, but an attempt to crown him the nominee might lead to a revolt among the latter and cause a massive fracture in the Republican coalition. Imagine 2010’s Tea Party insurgency against incumbent GOP lawmakers, turned up to 11. In which case, the “cure” of a Daniels candidacy might turn out to be worse than the “disease”—a weak Republican nominee.
As it stands, things aren’t as bad as they look for Republicans. Romney performed well enough in last night’s debate, and if he wins the Florida primary, he can parlay that momentum into February—where he fights on friendly territory in Michigan and Arizona—and March, where he has the money and staff to wage a national battle on Super Tuesday. Romney is in worse shape if he loses Florida, but it’s not fatal—not only can Romney survive through February but the calendar deprives Gingrich of oxygen for his fire; after Florida, the next Southern primary isn’t until March.
Mitt Romney is still the favorite for the nomination, and because of the 50-50 split of American politics, he's still a decent bet for the general election. For now, at least, the William Kristols of the GOP should back away from the panic button.