Another strong debate , the endorsement that everyone wanted, his biggest rival sinking — Mitt Romney is riding high. So is it time for his competitors to take their ball and go home? Is the former Massachusetts governor the inevitable Republican nominee?
It’s clear he’s strong and currently the one to beat, but analysts and experts in the early states as well as campaign operatives that have experienced the tricky inevitability label before say not so fast, there is a long campaign ahead.
Even the Romney camp itself is trying to temper the “sure thing” label with a senior adviser telling ABC News the end is not near.
“We don’t expect this to end soon,” the adviser said. “We are ready to fight until summer.”
Another adviser said they aren’t counting any of their rivals out and they take everyone on the stage seriously.
That’s a good thing because around this time in 2007 it was Hillary Clinton who looked unbeatable. The storyline that she was inevitable was conventional wisdom and it turned out to be dead wrong.
Phil Singer was the spokesman for Clinton’s campaign and he says when it comes to the inevitability label candidates should strive for the “goldilocks balance.”
“You want to be inevitable, but not too inevitable because it takes away a sense of urgency from your supporters,” Singer told ABC News.
Singer pointed out that it’s not just the Clinton campaign that Romney can learn from, but also the 2009 Michael Bloomberg mayoral re-election campaign when he came in only five points ahead of his opponent although he poured $100 million of his own money into the race and had a fairly strong lead in polling. Singer warned that “if you create this perception of inevitability you run the risk of seeing a more lackluster turnout than you would need for a favorable result.”
“Inevitability is an asset in terms of chilling your opponent from raising money and mounting a challenge,” Singer said. “But it doesn’t undermine your own effort. That’s sort of the art form to all of this.”
Singer added that if Romney makes the campaign about an issue or cause the campaign “will have an easier time managing the idea that they are inevitable.”
“In general, successful candidates recognize campaigns are not about them, but about voters and issues. Candidates that are focused on themselves are relying on personality and nobody is ever as good as the hype. Nobody can ever live up to the hype they create for themselves.”
Michele Bachmann , Rick Perry , and now Herman Cain have all surged and had their time in the spotlight, but Romney has stayed stagnant in national polls. Yes, he’s on top, but in national polls he’s stayed around 25 percent , another point sure to cool the inevitability argument. However, stagnant on top is better than plunging which now third place Rick Perry after another poor debate performance would surely love to be experiencing. However, Perry is far from out, having raised $17 million in the third quarter .
As for the Perry team, they view the campaign as a marathon of a race, not a sprint according to a campaign aide. They are planning on rolling out policy speeches in the next few weeks and they are depending on a ground game in South Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire. The aide added that the campaign believes the election is going to be won based on the ground game, not in the pundit studio in Washington.
Neil Levesque, the director of Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics says the “fight is still on” in the Granite State.
“I think what he’s [Perry] going to be doing is contrasting himself with Gov. Romney and showing that he has been an accomplished governor for ten years and he’s not just giving a state like New Hampshire to Romney and that’s what he’s doing. He’s here and he’s campaigning,” Levesque said.
We still aren’t in the point in the campaign where candidates have used their war chests to go on air with television ads and when that happens Levesque points out “contrasting” will take place between the candidates in the ads.
Romney is still dominating in polling in New Hampshire, where he owns a summer home and has been campaigning aggressively. An NBC News/ Marist College poll released this week had Romney at 44 percent in the state, followed by Ron Paul and Cain at 13 percent. Perry came in fourth with six percent.
Levesque adds that Romney is campaigning “very hard” in New Hampshire and he’s much more relaxed and at ease this time around.
“He’s taking nothing for granted for sure. He’s all over the state and working very hard and I think that’s a smart move,” Levesque said. “This is a state where people watch to the very end and they take this very seriously.”
Another sign that Romney is solidifying as the GOP nominee? The Obama team is focusing on him. On a Wednesday conference call senior Obama strategist David Axelrod criticized Romney’s comments in Tuesday night’s Bloomberg Television/Washington Post debate where he called President Obama’s proposed payroll tax cut extension a “little band aid” for dealing with a big economic problem.
He also aimed to paint Romney as a “flip flopper” on policy issues including his health care reform legislation in Massachusetts.
The American people “want to know that where the president was yesterday is where he’ll be today, is where he’ll be tomorrow, and that the commitments that he makes are ones that they can count on,” Axelrod said. “It’s hardly the case [for Romney] when you’re all over the lot as [he] was last night, has been through this campaign, has been throughout his career.”
The Democratic National Committee set up a website to also drill down the image of Romney as a flip flopper launching the WhichMitt campaign which shows Romney’s conflicting statement on a variety of policy issues including abortion and the stimulus.
Even in Iowa — where Romney isn’t playing anywhere nearly as hard as he did last time around , when he poured close to seven million dollars into the state only to lose to Mike Huckabee — he is still polling the strongest. In an NBC News/Marist College poll of Iowa also released this week Romney is on top with 23 percent of likely Republican caucus goers, while Cain came in second with 20 percent.
Craig Robinson, the former policy director for the Iowa Republican party, says there is still a feeling in the Hawkeye state that “people are desperate” for an alternative to Romney and that could trip him up.
“While watching these debates it seems like it is inevitable that he will be the nominee, but I still think that as we have seen in every election cycle there will be an alternative to him [Romney],” Robinson said.
Robinson also emphasized that there is still a long way to go before the Iowa caucuses.
“I would want to be trending in late December in Iowa,” Robinson said. “My goal would be to be winning in early January not in early October. I think there’s still time for these candidates: Cain needs to be focused on winning early states; Rick Perry has his head down in Iowa working hard and that could pay off in the long term; and the same goes for [Michele] Bachmann and [Rick] Santorum.”
The tea party has also yet to coalesce around any candidate — but that definitely won’t be Romney. FreedomWorks, a tea party group, told ABC News last week that they don’t traditionally endorse in presidential elections, but they might if it becomes a two man race and Romney is one of the two men.
“[Romney] is more of a politician than authentic,” FreedomWorks’ spokesman Adam Brandon said.
However GOP strategist Brian Donahue thinks New Jersey governor Chris Christie will help Romney with his tea party problem.
“Chris Christie lends a tremendous amount of credibility to Romney’s efforts because he is a rock star in the anti-establishment, activist wing of our party, and by supporting Romney he’s symbolically conveying to the tea party activists that Romney can and will echo that agenda as he puts for his campaign for president,” Donahue said.
There’s also the point that Republicans do like to nominate the guy who ran last time on the “it’s his turn” theory. Every Republican nominee in the last four decades — besides George W. Bush — had already run before, was an establishment favorite, or was the sitting vice president. The stamina and effort it takes to run for president is something Romney knows well, and it’s a clear advantage.
“Perry needs to pick up his game. He’s got some money, plenty of money and he’s got some support, but he’s not shown anyone anything yet,” said GOP strategist John Feehery. “This isn’t Romney’s first marathon. In your first marathon by mile 20 you’re completely pooped. Perry hasn’t hit mile 20 yet and he’s pooped, but Romney has run this before and it’s a huge advantage.”
A former Romney staffer who traveled with Romney in 2008 said it looks like Romney does have it wrapped up, but warned that at any stage in the campaign Romney is not safe from a gaffe or a negative news cycle that could hurt his frontrunner status.
“It’s hard for me to get to the math where Mitt loses, but you spend as much time as I have with him and he has an uncanny ability to make not good news so I wouldn’t put it past him, but this far he’s on a glide path,” the former aide said.
ABC News’ John Berman, Emily Friedman, Arlette Saenz and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.