Mitt Romney's campaign for the Republican nomination is unfolding like a well-crafted business plan. He hit his numbers in New Hampshire last night, saw his most dangerous rivals tumble, and reinforced the aura of inevitability that surrounds his candidacy.
Everything seemed to fall Romney's way. After his dizzying ascent in Iowa, Rick Santorum fell back to earth with a fifth-place finish. Newt Gingrich, who went snarling across New Hampshire like a wounded beast, flamed out. Ron Paul came in second, which suits Romney just fine. Paul's libertarian purism inspires cult-like fervor among his young followers, but it will never command majorities in GOP primaries.
Yes, it was a good night for John Huntsman, but probably the best he'll have this year. He did well among independents, moderates and voters who don't like the Tea Party, a not-so-representative sample of the GOP electorate. He has nowhere to go, and it seems unlikely Romney would put another Mormon on his ticket.
Now it's on to South Carolina, where Romney already leads, and where Paul's useful presence will inhibit last-ditch attempts by conservatives to form an "anybody but Mitt" coalition. If he wins in the South, the race is effectively over.
What are the implications for progressives of Romney's emergence as President Obama's likely opponent in November? Let me offer four:
First, don't underestimate Romney. It's hard not to be impressed by Romney's methodical, disciplined march to the nomination, even if, like me, you are appalled by his willingness to change positions that get in his way.
On the other hand, Romney has a big structural advantage that is usually decisive in Republican nominating battles. No, it's not money, it's the fact that he's the establishment candidate. Romney ran second to John McCain in 2008, paying his dues and learning lessons that have helped him avoid mistakes this time around. Now he's the GOP heriarchy's presumptive choice, even if most conservatives don't much like or trust him.
Romney may have tepid support from the GOP base, he may be pathetically unable to connect with ordinary Americans, but he is a competent, calculating machine who knows how to map and adapt to challenging political terrain, whether it's very liberal Massachusetts or the radically conservative Iowa caucuses.
Second, electability is trumping ideology. Nearly 60 percent of New Hampshire voters said their top priority was a candidate who could defeat President Obama. Only 14 percent said they were looking for a "true conservative."
This of course is bad news for President Obama, who would have loved to face a Tea Party favorite like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, or even Newt Gingrich. Then the fall campaign would have been about GOP extremism rather than the economy. That the Tea Party's least favorite candidate appears headed toward nomination is a tacit admission that the party has veered dangerously from the political mainstream.
Third, an Obama-Romney match-up will be a fight for the political center. Newt Gingrich is right: Romney began his career as a "Massachusetts moderate." That means he will have more "crossover appeal" to swing voters than his GOP rivals, which he'll need to offset minimal enthusiasm from conservatives. Given his now legendary "flexibility," it shouldn't be hard for Romney to pivot back to the center. He might even warm to Romneycare again, to demonstrate his pragmatic acceptance of government's role in health care, and of his willingness to work across the aisle to get things done.
In any case, neither candidate can rely on a mobilizing their base to win election. That means Obama will have to work harder to win back independent and moderate voters who deserted his party in 2010.
Fourth, the economy is the issue. Much of Romney's "electability" stems from his cred as a successful businessman and manager who knows how the real economy works. As he made clear in his victory remarks last night, Romney intends to make the 2012 election another referendum on Obama's economic performance.
Democrats hope to turn Romney's success as a corporate turnaround artist against him, echoing Gingrich's claims Bain Capital "looted" firms and cost workers their jobs. But Obama should be leery of hitting the "vulture capitalism" theme too hard.
The swing voters who will decide the election want action to fix the economy, not scapegoating. Rather than allow himself to be lured into a debate over what's he done to fix it, Obama needs to frame the race prospectively, as a choice between competing paths to economic renewal. His top priority must be to develop a bolder, more compelling plan for reviving jobs, spurring economic innovation, and restoring U.S. competitiveness.