Mitt Romney has already been crowned the 2012 GOP frontrunner by a bevy of pundits.
A couple weeks ago, the former Massachusetts governor announced that he'd be returning to the 29th Biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in September. This swanky affair at one of the Great Lake State's premier vacation spots has long drawn top GOP talent, including John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich (if he still counts after his campaign's conflagration).
But then Mitt dropped the bomb. He had decided to sit out Hotline's presidential straw poll at the shindig -- even though he had scored a big victory in the '07 version over McCain. That grabbed Romney headlines and foreshadowed his first 2008 primary victory, which, again, was in Michigan.
And the Mittster announced he wasn't participating in any straw polls in any state -- Iowa, Florida, you name it.
Sure, that's tempting for anointed frountrunners to do. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
But it's also a dead giveaway that the candidate's support beyond big donors and the pundit class is shaky. And for Romney to bow out of Michigan -- the state that almost propelled him to the nomination last time around -- well, that's not a good sign
But Team Romney tried to put its best spin on it. Campaign Manager Matt Rhoades (who's apparently a close, personal friend of Matt Drudge, which never hurt any Republican) acknowledged Romney "learned some important lessons" from straw polls last time, and evidently has nothing left to learn.
The former governor also trotted out Michigan GOP National Committeeman Saul Anuzis, who carried water for Romney back in 2008 while never formally endorsing him, but has been coy about his allegiance this time around.
"The campaign's decision to not participate in any straw polls is a
strategic decision on their part," Anuzis said. "Straw polls are an
expensive proposition and they have decided to focus their resources on
primary day. I can respect that. I am pleased that Mitt has committed
to our Mackinac conference which is very important to our party and
which demonstrates his commitment to playing hard in Michigan."
Mmm mmm. That's some tasty spin.
Of course, Romney's strategy seems destined to backfire. For one thing, it's not clear that Mitt can really yank himself out of the straw poll running. As far as the Michigan contest goes, Hotline Editor Reid Wilson said the Romney camp can "define participation as it wants ... but I find it hard to imagine the Republican frontrunner won't meet those goals and appear on the ballot."
So chances are, Romney will still get stuck with headlines announcing he's lost straw poll in the state where his dad, former Gov. George Romney, is still an icon.
Then there's the somewhat lackluster list of Romney's Michigan endorsements this week. By this point in the '08 election, just about every Republican in the state had decided to go steady with somebody, but the field is pretty open this time around as the GOP waits patiently for a savior.
Romney can count 18 endorsements from politicians for '12, including Rep. Paul Scott (R-Grand Blanc), Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville) and Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge). But in 2008, he racked up more than 50 endorsements, including several names not on the list this time, like Sen. Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lowell), Sen. Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale) and House Appropriations Chair Chuck Moss (R-Birmingham).
"He'll have to work harder to gain lawmaker support this time," said Dennis Darnoi, a GOP consultant and owner of Farmington Hills-based Densar Consulting. "That pretty much fell into his lap the last time. But there's always the sense that, 'You had your chance last time.'"
Romney certainly can't afford to lose Michigan in the primary next year -- that would probably be the death knell of his bid, if the contest is held early enough. And there are advantages to Republicans nominating him, as he'd put a big state in play and could definitely help down-ballot races in Michigan, which include the seat of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).
But Mitt already has lost his share of endorsements in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- something Democrats have crowed about.
The elephant in the room is Romneycare, which was the model for Obamacare -- and no amount of speeches Mitt gives in Ann Arbor proclaiming that his totally awesome plan wasn't can change that.
While it was acceptable for Republicans to back Romney in 2008 over his health care plan (even Tea Party godfather Jim DeMint cheered it), the GOP has since veered to the right. Now Mitt's plan is socialism and many politicians are understandably wary of signing up as comrades.
That's what makes it so fascinating that Michigan Attorney Bill Schuette is heading up Romney's '12 campaign in the Mitten State. Schuette is a vocal Obamacare critic and is happily pouring state money into a lawsuit against it along with more than 20 other states. It will be interesting to see how the ambitious AG squares his positions.
But not all is lost for Romney in Michigan or nationwide. He handily won a recent poll in his home state with 29 percent over undecided at 26 percent and Sarah Palin, who clocked in with 6 percent. He has plenty of the Michigan GOP establishment wrapped up. He's kicking butt in fundraising. And he looked like a grownup in the first debate.
It's early enough that predictions are silly. But there are plenty of warning signs that Romney can't count on coasting to the nomination just because he's the next guy in line. It's not clear that the Republican Party still works that way in the Tea Party era.
We'll see if Mitt feels the need to spend a lot in the Mitten State in the months to come. If he does, that's one more sign that Romney's frontrunner status is hardly a lock.
Susan J. Demas is a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.