Jeff Jacoby

Anderson told me afterward that while he deeply admires McCain, he has no intention of voting for Romney, whom he considers too willing to tilt to the left whenever it is politically expedient to do so. "I'm not a Romney-hater," he said. But given Romney's philosophical flexibility, "I do not believe he can take on President Obama."

Every presidential re-election campaign eventually becomes a referendum on the incumbent. No matter who the GOP eventually nominates, voters next November will be deciding whether Barack Obama deserves a second term in office. But the Republican nomination contest has itself become a kind of referendum -- a referendum on Romney. In the "Mitt" camp are those who see in the former consultant and venture capitalist and pragmatic politician the skill set needed to defeat Obama and revive the economy. In the "not-Mitt" camp are those who find it impossible to rally behind a candidate who seems to lack clear and resonant principles.

At the Iowa caucuses, entrance polls showed, Romney handily won the support of voters who cited electability as the most important criterion, while the great majority of those looking for a principled conservative voted against him.

"I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that's what you want me to be," then-Senator Bob Dole unconvincingly promised Republicans in 1995. Dole went on to win the GOP nomination the following year, but the party's conservative core never got enthusiastic about him, and independent voters weren't attracted to a candidate who couldn't even excite his own base.

The case against Romney boils down to the perception that to become president, he is prepared to say anything. The case for him boils down to the conviction that virtually any Republican, even a political weathervane, would be better than Obama. "We cannot afford another four years of this man," a voter in the audience said to Romney at the Boys and Girls Club Thursday morning. "We've got to get him out of the White House."

Before Republicans can take on Obama, they've got to figure out what sort of leader they want to replace him with. "Mitt" may have New Hampshire's primary in the bag, but "not-Mitt" still seems pretty formidable.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.