Romney’s long game

On a week he knew would be packed with political headlines, the GOP front-runner finally, quietly slipped into the Republican presidential primary. On Monday, Mitt Romney released a low-key video announcing his exploratory committee, content to risk his news being drowned out by other developments as he continues his stealth preparations for the presidential race. After losing to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 primary, Romney is planning a new and different fight to win the White House. And he is gambling on the hope that despite all that has changed — the advent of the Tea Party, the burgeoning volatility of the electorate and a transformation the Internet has forced upon political campaigns — the GOP will preserve its tradition of allowing second acts for losers.

In a weak field crowded by candidates adept at sucking up the spotlight like vacuums, Romney has gone into political hiding. Donald Trump is soaring in the polls, Michele Bachmann means business, and rarely does a week pass without former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) issuing a proclamation on the topic of the hour. An early entrance would associate Romney with the other candidates and the skirmishes they invite, force him to respond to every unpopular move congressional Republicans make and risk more of the inevitable stream of gaffes and errors every candidate will be certain to make along the way. In short, we won’t have Mitt Romney to kick around for a while.

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An exploratory committee allows Romney, who started one week after President Obama announced his own campaign for 2012, to begin raising money in earnest and socking it away for the long haul. In a race without a real favorite, with proportional voting having replaced winner-take-all primaries, Romney has decided not to go big but to go long. He knows that he will need some early wins, in New Hampshire and Nevada, but doesn’t believe that losing in Iowa or South Carolina disqualifies him in what promises not to be the traditional sprint but a lengthy marathon.

Like President Obama in 2008, Romney aims to amass the most delegates and become the nominee, no matter how arduous the process. And beaten and bloodied he will be, only this time in frayed jeans instead of tassel loafers. The healthcare reform plan he signed into law as Massachusetts governor, which he struggles to differentiate from Obama’s healthcare law, is deeply unpopular with GOP primary voters. He also faces lingering criticism from the 2008 campaign about his reversals on abortion, gay rights and other issues. And sadly, in 2011, his Mormon faith remains a liability with evangelical voters who hold sway in many early primary contests. 

Romney’s plan to raise substantial funds and run a campaign designed for his weaknesses, rather than one that ignores them, suggests that Romney 2.0 is a realist, someone aware of his own limitations. This is not only attractive but rare in a politician aspiring for high office. One CEO who is raising money for Romney said the former governor told him that, should he win the nomination, he would ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to be his running mate. Christie could turn him down, but it shows Romney is aware he will need someone more popular than he is to unite a divided party and bring the Tea Party on board after a long, bitter primary. 

Many weaknesses have given Romney the advantage of being underestimated; at this point he isn’t considered much more formidable than other likely candidates, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But he is banking on one advantage his competitors lack — the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.