Michigan Could Change the GOP's Future

Matt Towery

8/30/2007 8:01:00 PM - Matt Towery

Months ago, one of my closest and smartest friends, Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, told me he was committing to Mitt Romney for president. I told him I didn't think Romney had a chance. Now I'm starting to think my former colleague and good buddy is graduating to political genius.

I know many "Reagan Republicans" believe Romney has flipped and flopped on too many issues. Plenty more people think he's bought his way to a prominent position in the polls by overspending in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But in the complex recipe for presidential politics, this year there is a new ingredient -- a sifting and shifting of the dates for presidential primaries in various states. Strategies -- and predictions -- must change with them.

The Michigan legislature has voted to move its presidential primary up to mid-January. The likely national lineup of primaries and caucuses now reads, in order: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan, South Carolina and then Florida. Following that arrives an avalanche of primaries on a single day, the so-called "Tsunami Tuesday."

That row of electoral ducks might be unhappy hunting for Rudy Giuliani, who otherwise looked ready to gather enough steam to head into the "Super-Duper Tuesday" sweepstakes with don't-look-back momentum.

That goes for Fred Thompson, too. He will be entering the race officially next week.

It had been looking like Romney's gamble of betting the farm on Iowa and New Hampshire was backfiring. How many Americans care about Iowa -- which Romney basically is buying -- or New Hampshire, a neighbor to Romney's home of Massachusetts? And he's been barely registering in the polls in South Carolina and Florida, and most everywhere else.

But politics is fickle stuff. Right now Michigan is making it so.

Consider this scenario: Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire, and does OK in the second-tier Nevada caucus. Next comes Michigan, where Romney has much in his favor.

It's considered a GOP "establishment" state. It's not somewhere that "New York, New York" is frequently whistled, as it is in Giuliani's home of New York state. Nor is it a place where wonk eggheads like Newt Gingrich are considered mainstream; or where molasses-mannered Southerners like Fred Thompson strike a tonic chord.

As it was when Romney's father, George, was governor decades ago, Michigan remains a sort of Jerry Ford-ish, don't-rock-the-boat, plain vanilla Republican state.

Mitt Romney will slide into that atmosphere like a hand into a silk glove. So will the old guard Republican establishment that backs him in many states.

If Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan before heading to Florida, he could by then be edging up to the status of front-runner, perhaps unstoppable front-runner. Money usually chases wins in the Republican Party. For better or worse, the GOP often nominates the candidate who's winning, and not necessarily the one who is best qualified or most likely to win the general election.

My feeling that Romney would be pummeled in the general election by Democrat Hillary Clinton is a sentiment backed by public opinion surveys.

It could be that such a dire tea-reading for the GOP is a bit premature. I've come to measure the presidential candidates primarily on their intensity and their talent for hanging tough through the merciless marathon of a presidential race. (Incidentally, marginal candidate Ron Paul is certainly the most unique of the Republican field, and often the most dead-on.)

Giuliani clearly still has what it takes. John McCain clearly has deflated to a shadow of his 2000 self. The others have been mostly ignored.

Romney keeps exceeding expectations for both fund-raising and for just plain appearing presidential.

Matched up against Hillary Clinton, his never-at-a-loss-for-words swagger might contrast vividly with President Bush's stumble-and-mumble style of which Americans of both parties have grown weary. (Bush clearly recognizes his weakness for communicating, and often pokes fun at himself, to his credit.) But the Republicans don't stand a chance of staying in the White House if their nominee doesn't speak more forcefully and articulately than does the president.

Romney is not without his weaknesses. Many on the right wing of the Republican Party view him skeptically as not bone-marrow conservative -- a warmed-over, if spit-shined George Bush.

My friend Mark is a true Reagan Republican. And if the presidential primary schedule stays as it is today, even those reluctant GOP diehards may see a chance for new life in Mitt Romney.