As GOP field runs ragged, front-runner Romney lays low

Slow and steady might just win the race for Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor has kept his head down as much as possible during the 2012 race for the Republican nomination, while benefiting from the demise of his more volatile opponents. 

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Last time around that wasn't the case. During Romney’s first bid for the White House in 2008, he kept himself in the news while building national name recognition. He spent early and heavily on television ads in Iowa and made repeated overtures to the GOP’s right flank on abortion and social issues. When he fell flat in Iowa, his efforts to court conservative struck many as disingenuous.

This time, Romney has maintained a low profile, avoiding the Sunday talk shows, keeping interviews to a minimum and skipping many of the high-profile dinners and candidate forums.

In a race saturated by red sports cars piling up speeding tickets, Romney has been the dependable, beige Toyota Corolla moving with the traffic.

While Romney inches forward, his opponents, one by one, have shot ahead of him, only to flame out and fall back. It happened with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.), then Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas).

While Herman Cain’s sexual harassment scandal hasn’t sunk his poll numbers quite yet, it appears decreasingly likely that Republicans will nominate a candidate who would enter the general election against President Obama with such considerable baggage.

“The one constant this year has been Mitt Romney. He’s the consistent front-runner, even if he’s not the only front-runner,” said Dan Hazelwood, a GOP political consultant not aligned with any of the candidates.

Hazelwood said Romney’s steady, reliable demeanor fits the mood of what voters are looking for during a tumultuous economic climate.

“Mitt Romney is not disengaged; what he is doing is not hyperventilating," Hazelwood said. "That's the difference of having been through a presidential race before."

In polls of Republican primary voters, Romney has hovered between 20-25 percent in the polls throughout the past six months. That has kept him in the lead most of the time, but has also led many to charge that he has “topped out” and has little room to grow.

A heavy dose of good luck, combined with polling showing Romney as the strongest Republican candidate against Obama, has let much of the air out of those charges. Time and again, his challengers have pulled up to him and threatened to overtake him, only to fall flat after questions were raised about their competence and seriousness.

Romney’s good fortune in the primary mirrors that of the man he hopes to get to face in the general. When Obama ran for the Senate in Illinois in 2004, he watched path to victory get easier and easier until he coasted to Washington.

First, Republican Jack Ryan imploded after the release of his divorce files shed light on an alleged sex scandal. Then Republicans replaced Ryan as their candidate with Alan Keyes, a highly polarizing figure from Maryland who was effectively slapped with the “carpetbagger” label.

Unlike Obama, who had already won his party’s nomination, Romney’s steadiness amid volatility could be an omen that he lacks the vitality to take his campaign to the next level.

“He's been stuck. Here you have these conservatives cannibalizing each other, and yet he’s not moving up at all,” said Bob Schuman, a Republican strategist who chairs a pro-Perry PAC. “This ‘laying low’ thing is not really working out.”

Romney's sit-back-and-wait strategy has not gone unnoticed by the Sunday political talk-show hosts accustomed to getting face time with anyone with presidential aspirations. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace called out Romney last weekend after an interview with Perry. 

“With Gov. Perry's appearance, we have interviewed all of the major Republican candidates in our 2012 '101' series except Mitt Romney,” he said. “He's not appeared on any Sunday talk show since March of 2010. We invited Gov. Mitt Romney again this week but his campaign said he's still not ready to sit down for an interview.”

A source close to Fox News Sunday said the show had reached out to Romney’s campaign almost every week for the past few months but has had no luck getting Romney to sit down for an interview.

During the 2008 cycle, Romney was more accessible, making multiple appearances on the show and participating in Fox's “Choosing the President” segment in August of 2007, fresh off his Iowa Straw Poll win.

A source at NBC News said “Meet the Press” has extended invitations to Romney for its “Meet the Candidates” series, but Romney has declined them — as has Perry. During his last bid for the GOP nomination, Romney appeared on the show in December 2007.

Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Romney planned to do Sunday shows in the future, but was prioritizing key issues and retail politics.

“Right now, he is focused on meeting voters face to face and sharing his message on the economy and jobs,” she said.

That focus affords Romney opportunities to highlight his biggest strengths: his private sector experience and economic know-how. It also allows him to save up his money for later in the race and sidestep the messy primary crossfire that could hurt him in the general election. 

Romney is hoping that he doesn’t need an overwhelming majority to win his party’s nomination. He just has to be the last man standing.