A year ago the MSM story was John McCain --frontrunner, even though he wasn't.
Six months ago the MSM story was Fred's groundswell --except, it wasn't.
Three month's ago, the MSM swooned over Newt --for a weekend.
In the past month, the MSM has been booming the Huckaboom, even though it is already a Huckabust.
Never have so many pundits been so wrong about so much.
A few pundits --John Podhoretz, Fred Barnes, some of the gang at NationalReview.com's The Corner and of course yours truly-- have called it a two man race from early '07: Mitt v. Rudy. The former Massachusetts governor intended to do well early and build an unstoppable momentum. The former New York mayor intended to hang back until Florida's late January vote, watch the field filet each other, and then launch his campaign for real in the Sunshine State.
Both candidates are still on plan, and the various threats (Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire) to the Romney plan and the various premature obituaries penned on the Giuliani plan all overlook the fundamental fact that more than 50% of the GOP is pledged to either of these two men. That is because these are the two candidates who can beat Hillary or Obama. None of the other three have shown themselves capable of raising the money, the energy, or the coalition to manage that task. Thus if Romney falters, his voters will largely go to Rudy. And if Mittmentum gets a win or a place in both Iowa or New Hampshire, the conservative vote will flow to him further down the road.
The GOP traditionally nominates the most conservative candidate who can win in November. "Conservative" means "conservative" across the three coalitions of values voters, economic growthers, and national security firsters. (See my May, 1998 Weekly Standard article "Our Six Party System" for details on the GOP's three parties and the Dems' three parties.).
Mike Huckabee isn't an economic conservative and he certainly isn't a national security conservative given his comments on Iran. The Huck's comments on Iran are disqualifying, period. Naivete is charming in many people and situations, but not in a would-be president on the greatest threat to world stability.
John McCain is strong on the war, but against the Bush tax cuts, against the First Amendment, against the rule of 51 and his party's leadership in the Senate when it comes to judges, in favor of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill and decidedly not a Party man.
Fred just doesn't evidence the ability to muster the energy it will take to beat Clinton, Inc or Obama-Oprah.
That leaves Romney and Giuliani. Both men have very enthusiastic, not-for-turning bases of support. Both took on Russert and stayed in the ring for the distance. Both can raise funds and enthusiasm with extended exposure.
Voters can imagine both of them as president on a day of crisis.
In recent weeks, beginning with the College Station speech on religious liberty, Romney has been consolidating conservative influencers, and the National Review's endorsement was a very big deal. To this growing recognition that he is the most conservative candidate who can win and unite the three factions within the GOP is married the recognition of his grasp of the enormous complexities of the globalized economy and the myriad security threats facing the country. He also has the organization, the financing, the discipline and the energy necessary to wage the long campaign ahead. All of those things combine with a fierce intellect that is capable of adapting his campaign to a rapidly changing electoral environment, and a public-spirited heart that cynics mock but the public appreciates. The years of anticipating where markets would be three and four years out when a company had to go public have also given Romney a crucial edge over his competitors --strategic vision. He isn't thinking just about next week or month, but also next year. This vision will be invaluable against the Clintons.
Mike Huckabee played the anti-Mormon card against Romney, and it hasn't worked, thus proving the old adage that if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. A lot of GOP primary voters were wondering if Romney could overcome that inevitable bit of unAmerican nastiness, and Huckabee's introduction of the issue early allowed Romney to handle it and allay the fears of the pragmatist, Al Davis "Just Win Baby" Republicans. Had the Mormon issue not been so crassly injected by Huckabee --by accident or intentional act-- a significant number of primary participants would have voted wondering if Romney could cope with it when launched by Hillary or a 527. Now they know he can. And the surfacing of the bigotry on the left has reminded values voters that the secular absolutists don't just hate Romney's LDS faith, but all sincerely held beliefs in a Creator. The noisy fringe will be as embarrassed of their anti-Mormon tirades in ten years as the anti-Catholic voters of 1960 were by 1970. It isn't wrong to debate theology at all, or to wholly reject Mormon beliefs. It is very wrong to carry that debate into the public square and declare a private or public religious test for office. 2007 has seen this debate play out --again. All but the very blind know it has been decided against the test enthusiasts.
Similarly, Rudy has been taking spear after spear on a variety of issues and while he has slipped a bit in the polls, he hasn't collapsed, and he is still sitting atop the big state polls waiting to see if Romney buckles or if Romney's voters come to him. The country knows Rudy. They know his past, the good and the bad. And it will not be an issue in the fall if the GOP puts him atop the ticket.
The long campaign has shown all of the candidates for exactly who they are and what they stand for. Absent a major mistake between now and February 5, Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee. If he does stumble badly, Rudy will be there to take Romney's voters and the nomination, and then head off for the postponed show-down with Hillary.
Either way, the campaign has served the GOP very well indeed.