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Published: Wednesday, 3/7/2012

Romney could learn from his Super Tuesday rivals

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN

Some presidential candidates surge toward a nomination; some sneak up on it in the dead of night. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, believing his hour has come around at last, at best seems to be slouching toward the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

With a mixed result on Super Tuesday, but one that included a narrow victory in Ohio, Mr. Romney once again has missed an opportunity to put away the race, perhaps even to wrap up the nomination.

And there are dangers ahead. Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri vote next week, and they are by no means natural Romney territory. But despite Tuesday's muddled finish, Mr. Romney remains in the best position eventually to capture the GOP prize.

"I've listened, and I've learned," he said from his Boston headquarters Tuesday night.

And it is after mega-contests like the 10 conducted Tuesday that candidates who are girding for a long struggle often pause for introspection.

If Mr. Romney does so, perhaps he might reflect on what he has learned thus far, not from the states he has won and lost but from the rivals who have remained with him in the race.

No major figure on the American political scene has been as far down as Rick Santorum, who lost his own Senate re-election battle by 18 points six years ago. Mr. Santorum used his wilderness years to make money and build connections, and finally began a presidential campaign that optimists called a long shot and realists called loony.

But with grit and creativity -- and not inconsiderable study, especially of foreign affairs -- the Pennsylvanian battled back, probing the established candidates for weaknesses, searching the political scene for openings.

He visited all 99 counties of Iowa, a quixotic mission reminiscent of Richard Nixon's doomed 1960 promise to visit all 50 states. But for Mr. Santorum, that voyage underlined his resilience and established his reach.

Mr. Santorum, the victor Tuesday night in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, proved that a consistent message, repeated consistently, is a potent political weapon.

Unlike Mr. Romney, who is accused of changing his positions the way he changes campaign vestments, Mr. Santorum generally has avoided trimming his positions to the fashions of the seasons.

If the GOP race were decided by pure determination, Mr. Santorum would be the nominee by acclimation.

Then there's Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who was drawn into the political world from his profession as an obstetrician. For decades, Mr. Paul has expressed his impatience with the Federal Reserve, his skepticism of an interventionist foreign policy, and his opposition to an intrusive government.

Mr. Romney's position on abortion, by contrast, dates to 2006. That's the same year Massachusetts, under his leadership, passed a health-care plan that Obama Administration officials say was the model for the health-care plan Mr. Romney so ardently opposes.

But Mr. Paul's most compelling attributes are his frankness and his courage. He is willing to take the unpopular position and make the unpopular statement.

Republicans and Democrats alike were attracted to Sen. John McCain of Arizona a dozen years ago, not because they necessarily agreed with his views but because they admired his forthrightness and his readiness to break from orthodoxy.

Mr. Romney has shown neither the instinct nor the inclination to do so.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has many flaws as a presidential candidate, but a lack of passion and a deficit of intelligence are not among them.

In debates, in interviews, and on the stump, Mr. Gingrich is passion personified. His raw, sometimes unrefined intelligence is on display.

That isn't what won him Georgia Tuesday night; his roots in the state did that. But it's what kept him in the race when all the smart people pronounced him a goner.

Mr. Gingrich is the only candidate in the field who shows any joy in the debate process -- not the politics of joy that Hubert Humphrey displayed in 1968, another fraught time, but a joy in exploring topics and themes that engaged his imagination, such as space flight or zoos.

Whether frightened by his zeal or fascinated by his effervescence, viewers and voters simply could not take their eyes off him.

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll showed that Mr. Romney holds a strong advantage over Mr. Santorum in appearing knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency.

The results Tuesday night showed that Mr. Romney has the capacity to project strength nationally, not just regionally -- though the South remains a bafflingly elusive prize.

What eludes Mr. Romney is a sense of ease and confidence. Instead, he seems tentative, even awkward. He is the prisoner of two terrifying truths: that he is too scripted, and that once he veers from the libretto he becomes a comic-opera figure spewing political malaprops, mostly about his wealth.

Mr. Romney can do almost nothing about Mr. Santorum's advantage, according to the Journal/NBC Poll, in appearing to be a reliable conservative. He can perhaps do little about another Santorum advantage: caring about average people.

But if he shows he is comfortable with himself, he might go a long way toward making others feel comfortable with him.

It's the only attribute in politics that is contagious. Mr. Romney still needs to catch it -- and spread it.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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