As the Republican Presidential contest enters its final stage, Mitt Romney faces an interesting choice: Does he chug along to the party’s nomination, sticking with the same basic stump speech that has made him the presumptive nominee? Or does he use the next two months to better position himself for what will likely be a tough general election?
I would argue for the latter. Most polls show Romney leading in South Carolina and Florida, albeit with a more tenuous situation facing him in South Carolina. Should Romney win both states–or prevail only in supersize Florida–the media’s many oddsmakers are likely to declare the primaries officially over. But several of the also-rans may ignore this and keep slogging, telling themselves a victory is still mathematically possible since the selection of the convention delegates who actually elect the party nominee moves at a far slower pace than the media whirlwind surrounding the first few contests.
And then there’s the money. Each of the three other candidates, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, has a durable enough base–social conservatives for Santorum and Gingrich and goldbugs, libertarians and, well, oddballs, for Paul–to raise enough money on the Internet to keep a minimalist campaign puffing along. Will any of them be able to upset the Romney juggernaut and win the nomination? Unlikely.
But politicians are secret romantics, and the idea that a magic surge and upset are at least possible is a powerful lure. This is especially true for candidates who either have little to lose by staying in or just want to linger a little longer in the national spotlight as they ponder their next book or wait for that radio-talk-show offer to appear.
I call this the Jerry Brown effect. In 1992, Brown kept running long after the Democratic primary race was over, picking up a few delegates here and there and generally driving Bill Clinton up the wall all the way to the convention that summer. The same thing could happen to Romney this year, and if it does, he might consider using those months to triangulate a bit and put himself in a stronger position for the general election.
To the swing voters, who hold the real power this fall, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum all serve as effective foils for Romney. Each takes positions that are troubling, at best, to many of the independent voters who will ultimately choose the next President. By contrast, Romney is a grownup, and he could pick a few final intraparty fights to prove it.
For example, he could tell the truth about Paul’s cartoonish budget proposals and his lunatic foreign policy. He could remind Santorum that a Romney presidency would focus first and foremost on creating good jobs and restoring national solvency. The battle to protect the unborn would begin with respectful and gentle persuasion, he might add, as no pro-life legislation will ever become law without a far wider national consensus. And he could let Gingrich know that scorched-earth tactics and rhetoric may win the occasional election, but they also guarantee gridlock in Washington for four more years. Romney could say he is not running for President to call people names, bicker endlessly with lawmakers and get absolutely nothing done for the next four years. Independent voters would listen to that.
Doing this would also be risky business. Questioning any part of the conservative catechism will breathe new life into the also-rans’ campaigns. The conservative movement’s grand ayatullahs will howl “sellout” on AM radio and the Internet. For them, all elections are seen simply as a Republican primary. Triangulation is not the safe and quiet way to finish up the primaries, and my guess is the cautious Romney will not do it.
But is it worth losing the odd Minnesota caucus or Arizona primary to arrive in a stronger position for the general election? I would say yes. Despite Barack Obama’s many political vulnerabilities, he will be no pushover for Romney and the Republicans. While Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry have had little success trying to organize the anticapitalist wing of the GOP, Republicans know that the Bain Capital and class-warfare rhetoric will be far more potent in the working-class trenches of the general-election battle than in the country clubs of the Republican primaries. Such slash-and-burn stuff is the sad stock-in-trade of the Democratic campaign machine. But at a time of unmistakable middle-class frustration with Wall Street, Romney will need every ace he can hide up his button-down sleeve to survive that onslaught, make the race about Obama again and achieve final victory. That’s why a little spring triangulation could pay off big for him in November.
Murphy is a GOP political consultant and writer. He Twitters at murphymike