As I anticipated yesterday, Mitt Romney doubled down on RomneyCare in his speech this afternoon in Michigan. The former governor and his staff clearly came to the conclusion that retreat from the legislation he pushed through the Massachusetts legislature was impossible. The only way he thought he could deal with the dilemma of having backed a bill that bears a close resemblance to the Obamacare that Republicans hate was to pretend that it was different and to insist that all he had done was in the best interests of his state. To declare otherwise, “wouldn’t be honest.”
This stance may reflect his sincere belief, but as the overwhelming body of conservative opinion had already declared even before his speech that it wouldn’t fly. Rather than confronting a problem and getting it out of the way early in the campaign, Romney compounded his troubles. He may have more money than other candidates, but despite his many fine qualities, the cash in his bank account will only serve to create comparisons with other well-financed fiascos such as the campaigns of John Connally and Phil Gramm. Despite his alleged first tier status, at this point Romney has as much chance to be elected president as some of the lesser participants in last week’s dreadful first GOP presidential debate.
This means that despite the insistence of some observers that there is a first and second rank of Republican hopefuls the distinction is imaginary. Among the declared candidates, Tim Pawlenty may think he deserves to be seen in a different light from Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. But Pawlenty’s lack of name recognition and his lackluster style mean that he seems as unready for prime time as the others.
This realization will give hope to the marginal candidates and probably encourage those considering whether to run to take their chances and jump into the weak field. But until any of those would be contenders declare themselves and show whether they can stand up to even the low intensity scrutiny that is part of the early stages of the campaign, none of them can be classified as being in the front rank, let alone ahead. Perhaps Mitch Daniels will change this equation. Maybe by next February we’ll be recognizing Michelle Bachmann as the c0mpletlely unlikely dark horse who broke out from the pack to make a serious run at the nomination. Or maybe Pawlenty or Mike Huckabee will surge to the front once the caucuses and primaries begin. But until any of this happens, there is only one real frontrunner in the GOP presidential sweepstakes: none of the above.