Primary Battle Weary

Last night’s victory speech was familiar terrain for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Instead of asserting his conservative credentials or swiping at his Republican rivals, Romney focused his fire on Obama, with an extended attack on his leadership. “Mr. President, you were elected to lead, you chose to follow, and now it’s time for you to get out of the way," Romney said.

This speech was his pivot to the general election—a generic message that can appeal to disgruntled voters and disaffected supporters of the president. And with his big, double-digit win in the Florida Republican primary, it makes sense to return to this terrain. Romney has regained the momentum he lost in South Carolina, and reestablished himself as the GOP’s presumptive nominee for president.

The problem for Romney is that this should have happened much sooner. The conventional wisdom surrounding presidential primaries—at least, since 2008—is that competitive contests make for a better general election candidate. Barack Obama, to use the most prominent example, emerged from his hard-fought primary with Hillary Clinton with the skills necessary to triumph in the fall.

During his speech, Romney took a similar position, presenting this primary as one that will strengthen and unite the Republican Party. “As this primary unfolds, our opponents in the other party have been watching,” Romney said. “They like to comfort themselves with the thought that a competitive campaign will leave us divided and weak. But I’ve got some news for them: A competitive primary does not divide us; it prepares us. And when we gather here in Tampa seven months from now for our convention, ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America!"

But the GOP contest hasn’t actually been competitive—from last year to now, Mitt Romney has been the frontrunner, even as Rick Santorum won in Iowa, and Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.

If anything, this has been a divisive primary, with the candidates savaging Romney in attempts to harm his standing with Republican voters. Jon Huntsman attacked Romney as a “well-oiled weathervane,” whose views are the product of political expediency. Rick Perry took Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital to paint him as a “vulture capitalist,” who makes money off of the misery of ordinary workers.

Newt Gingrich, Romney’s closest competitor, has alternatively denounced the former Massachusetts governor as a “tool of Wall Street,” a “liberal Republican,” and a relentlessly negative candidate. “He has a basic policy of carpet bombing his opponents,” Gingrich told Fox News Sunday, “He doesn’t try to build up Mitt Romney, he just tries to tear down whoever he’s running against.”

Put another way, Barack Obama nominated his bitter rival, Hillary Clinton, to be Secretary of State after he won the presidency. Can anyone imagine the same from Mitt Romney if he wins the White House?

And all of this is to say nothing of Romney’s self-inflicted wounds, made in the course of fending off attacks. Taken together, the Republican primaries have left the public with an unflattering portrait of the former governor. In the most recent poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, 49 percent of Americans view Romney unfavorably, a 15 percent increase from two weeks ago. For many voters, their first impression of Romney is of a plutocrat who views corporations as people, defrauds the public of tax dollars with offshore accounts, and plunders companies for the sake of profit (while firing workers for the pleasure of it).

With a national organization and a huge warchest, there’s little doubt that Mitt Romney will win the next set of presidential primaries in Februrary, and continue his path to the nomination. But first impressions are everything in politics, and Romney hasn’t done well. What’s more, as long as Gingrich can stay in the race, the attacks are likely to continue.

If he isn’t careful, Romney could end up like that other Massachusetts presidential candidate—John Kerry—who couldn’t escape his first impressions.