Welcome back from Neverland, America.
Republicans asked Americans to treat Herman Cain like a serious candidate and pretend that turning the moon into the 51st state was a serious idea, and all the while Mitt Romney's handlers acted as if they believed happy thoughts could make their candidate fly.
It didn't work. Mitt Romney had every advantage in the Republican primary. He had money, a lead, and opposition composed of lost boys such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and he never really quite defeated them so much as outspent and outlasted them.
Now Republicans expect us to believe that Romney is ready to take on all the president's men. Unless there is fairy dust in Romney's Etch a Sketch, Republicans are stuck with a nominee in horrible shape -- wounded, unloved, and exposed.
This isn't the way primaries are supposed to work.
The 2008 primary produced a stronger Democratic nominee who had earned the trust of independent voters. By vanquishing the Clintons from coast to coast, Barack Obama proved that he was made of tougher stuff than inspiring speeches and the promise of racial progress. The long primary forced Obama's campaign to build infrastructure in states where Democrats never campaigned, helping them win states that Democrats rarely carried.
The Republican Primary has done the opposite for Romney, who is starting out where politicians usually end up after a grueling fall campaign. He's "underwater" (with higher negative than positive ratings) with all voters, making him the least-popular presidential nominee in the post-Watergate era. The gender gap is so wide now it echoes. Hispanics have self-deported themselves out of the Republican Party in droves. Romney is losing independents 40 percent to 55 percent to Obama, and that's unlikely to improve since Romney's underwater among independents, too.
"Romney has taken a real hit over this primary, particularly with independents and women," said Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock. "They have met Mitt Romney, and the more they get to know him, the less they like him."
To be this unpopular in America, normally you have to get rich by closing factories, or talk about how you love firing people and don't care about poor folks, or -- during a foreclosure crisis -- install elevators for your cars in your Barbie Dream House. But what kind of politician would do that?
The reason Americans choose likeable candidates for president is that they're stuck with them in their lives for four years -- in their kitchens, in their living rooms, in their bedrooms, speaking to them through the television screens. Presidents have a presence in an American's life in a way congressmen and senators only wished they did, and Americans are loath to vote for someone they loathe. If voters don't like Mitt, they aren't inviting him into their homes for the next four years.
Romney has to turn himself into an acceptable houseguest for America. Normally the way campaigns do this is to make a candidate more authentic. The problem with letting "Romney be Romney" is that it presents Republicans with, well, Romney. As one of his advisers dished to Mike Allen and Evan Thomas, the co-authors of PLAYBOOK 2012: Inside the Circus, Romney "can't be both authentic and guarded."
If Romney sticks to the script he comes across like Romney the Robot, an automaton who will say anything because he doesn't really believe in anything other than closing the deal. In his 1994 Senate campaign against the late Ted Kennedy, Romney said, "My personal beliefs, like the personal beliefs of other people, should not be brought into a political campaign." To call Romney vacuous insults vacuums.
But if the campaign lets Romney off the leash they have to suffer through the daily "What the Mitt?" moments that are a harsh abrasive on the baby-soft feelings of the body politic.
So where does this leave Romney as the Republicans prepare to set sail on the Jolly Roger? The only thing Romney's good at is going negative. He won the nomination by pummeling the lesser children of God with negative TV ads. That won't work against a better-liked, more-trusted president. If Romney doesn't figure out a way to come across as something other than a craven plutocrat, he'll end up just like Captain Hook: old... alone... done for.