For months, we've heard the chattering class tell us that Mitt Romney was the only acceptable Republican nominee. He was the only candidate who could beat Barack Obama; he was the only one smart enough, savvy enough, and milquetoast enough to defeat Obama in a general election. While Newt Gingrich was too hot and Rick Santorum was too cold, Romney was the Goldilocks candidate, everyone's second choice.
The question now is whether Romney will be Americans' first choice.
He faces an uphill climb. President Obama rides at about 50 percent in the polls nationally, despite the fact that he has presided over the worst economy since the Great Depression, destroyed the possibility of a moderate Muslim Middle East for the next generation at least, and polarized Americans along sex and race lines. Obama has rammed national health care down our collective throat, and he has threatened openly to raise taxes -- and yet half of Americans are perfectly happy with him.
Meanwhile, Romney lags behind Obama in key swing states, according to the most recent polls. He has trouble with female voters -- Obama defeats Romney 57 to 38 percent among females as of this week -- and blue-collar voters. He leaves most conservatives lukewarm; the others he leaves absolutely ice cold.
So can Romney win?
His electability was always based on the notion that Republicans must win the independents. Romney, it was assumed, could appeal to the independents because he is not a social issues candidate. He's widely considered a manager rather than an ideologue. He's a pragmatist rather than a conservative. He's a "get things done" guy, largely void of vision but capable of putting America back on her feet. You won't hear him make a convincing case for American rights, freedoms and liberties -- but he'll sure make a solid case for fiscal reform of particular entitlements if the debt is unsustainable. That's not inspiring stuff.
For that sort of candidate to win, the incumbent must be perceived as a full-fledged extremist. Obama, it was safe to assume, would be seen that way by the American public. But the public has largely refused to cooperate. Thanks to a pliable public and a militant media, Obama is seen not as a radical but as a typical Clinton-esque, left-leaning moderate. Obama, in other words, has a solid lock on a large swath of the middle of the country.
Conservatives needed either a crystallizing candidate -- a candidate with a unique capacity to identify the ideological conflict -- or a crystallizing moment, in which the American public suddenly recognized Obama for who he truly is. They didn't choose a crystallizing candidate. They chose a risk averse candidate, highly competent but bland.
And so conservatives must wait for a crystallizing moment. That moment will not come on the domestic policy front. Obama will shy away from any major initiatives from here to the election. He will largely rally against the rich, against the "elites" -- against the Mitt Romneys of the world. And Romney will be left to campaign on Obama's record, twisted and turned by the media from dross into gold. Obama's inflationary policies have driven up the stock market and driven down the unemployment rate, thanks to massive workforce dropouts. Oil prices will undoubtedly drop precipitously at a convenient moment, so long as Obama makes OPEC countries a few promises on Israel behind the scenes.
If there is to a crystallizing moment, it will come on foreign policy. Obama's foreign policy has, if possible, been more damaging than his domestic policies, which simply doubled down on Bush's spending addiction. Obama's foreign policy is different in kind: It sees America as a nasty force in the world, a country in need of a lesson. And America may well get that lesson.
Hence Obama's dramatic attempts to undercut Israel on taking out the Iranian nuclear program. If Obama is forced to choose between his hard-left and Islamist allies and an American public largely friendly to Israel, he will reveal himself to be the radical he truly is.
This election cycle started with the promise that it would be run on economics. It will be run on economics, for the most part. But if Romney is to win, he will win on foreign policy.