By virtue of the money he has raised and the way his rivals treat him, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
There’s danger in that position. The GOP field didn’t gang up on Mr. Romney in their New Hampshire debate last week, but that’s only because many of the candidates are breathing the sweet air of being in presidential politics for the first time.
Once they feel their political survival is at stake, one after another they will send arrows Mr. Romney’s way. Those arrows will provide opportunities for fellow contenders — and will challenge Mr. Romney’s mettle.
Despite the perils in leading the pack, though, it’s a lot better to be the front-runner than one of the other contenders. More often than not, front-runners win their party’s nomination: Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, and George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 are among many examples.
This pattern is particularly strong among Republicans. Three of their last four elected presidents were respected party figures who had run for the White House before. The fourth, George W. Bush, was the son of a president, the grandson of a senator, the brother of a governor, and himself the governor of the largest state headed by a Republican.
Every Republican nominee for the past four decades, with the exception of Mr. Bush and Gerald Ford, an appointed but incumbent president, had run for president before.
This factor, along with Mr. Romney’s bulging campaign treasury and the deference the other candidates displayed last week, underlines Mr. Romney’s position — a position so commanding that he outpolled Mr. Obama in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Mr. Romney has more than four times as much support in New Hampshire as his nearest rival, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who isn’t even in the race — yet.
New Hampshire is vital for Mr. Romney, who owns a vacation home in the state and whose primary residence is in a neighboring state. His defeat there four years ago at the hands of Sen. John McCain represented a substantial repudiation, as Massachusetts politicians from John F. Kennedy’s time on have prevailed in New Hampshire. The only exception besides Mr. Romney was Ted Kennedy, who was defeated by an incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980.
This time, Mr. Romney simply cannot afford to lose the state, especially since he has all but abandoned Iowa, whose caucuses will precede New Hampshire’s primary by eight days.
He can explain away a loss in Iowa: He won’t have competed and the contest there is shaping up as a social-conservatism derby that is not to his tastes or strengths. But losing New Hampshire would be fatal to his presidential hopes — especially since South Carolina, another social-conservative state, is likely to hold the next primary.
Mr. Romney was stung in Iowa in 2008 by former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, which was bad enough. Losing in his home region to Mr. McCain five days later was too much for his campaign to absorb.
The big talk has been the way former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota linked Mr. Obama’s health-care plan, which is anathema to Republicans, to Mr. Romney’s plan in Massachusetts by speaking of “Obamneycare.” Mr. Pawlenty used the word again at the debate, but its long-term effect may be to elevate Mr. Romney into a political if not moral equivalent of the President — not the sort of tactic that always benefits a challenger.
The health-care issue underlines Mr. Romney’s biggest task: to counter the notion that he changes his views with the political breezes. His opponents believe he supported legalized abortion and a health-care plan in Massachusetts because the political atmosphere in the state demanded it, and that he abandoned those views because the national political atmosphere required him to do so. But he also is pilloried for his failure to change his mind on global warming.
The result is a political conundrum. If Mr. Romney adjusts his position on global warming, he will be declared an opportunist. If he doesn’t, he will be at odds with a major tenet of the modern Republican creed.
Right now, Mr. Romney has the biggest advantage in the Gallup Poll any Republican contender has possessed in the race. That margin will shrink. The story of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight will be how much it shrinks, at what rate, and whether it disappears.
Such is the advantage and the danger of front-runner status.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org