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Jeb Bush Non-Endorsement May Be What Romney Needs

Of all the many possible reasons Jeb Bush seems to have backed off his earlier intention to endorse Mitt Romney, Politico’s Ben White received the most plausible I’ve heard. White tweeted yesterday that he heard from people close to Bush and was told: “Jeb won’t endorse in part because he knows Romney needs to show he can take down Newt w/out help.”

This is consistent with one way Republican and Democratic nominations differ. The Democratic approach, especially when nominating a more left-wing candidate, is to allow allies and especially the media to try and drag the candidate across the finish line. Sometimes it works–witness the current occupant of the White House. Sometimes it doesn’t–it was simply too much to ask that the country elect John Kerry president. Bush knows the GOP nominee will get even harsher scrutiny, and he must be able to stand on his own. But follow this line of thought a step further, and it begins to look like withholding his endorsement was the best thing Bush could have done for Romney, right now.

Consider: the more “establishment” support Romney gets, the more Gingrich looks like the “outsider”–a remarkable, but understandable, piece of branding. Additionally, Romney’s biggest failing as a candidate seems to be his inability to connect with voters. It’s possible that many just cannot relate to the portrait of a man who doesn’t seem to have faced enough adversity in his life. Leave aside whether or not that is actually the case, since it’s subjective. Narratives stick. And if this is one signal being picked up by a majority of the electorate, then a bit of adversity may help.

In their new biography of Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman tell the story of young Mitt’s first moment of public humiliation. In high school, Romney joined the cross-country team for a 2.5-mile race at halftime of one of the school’s football games. Romney, in his excitement, treated the run as a sprint:

Everyone except Mitt returned before the second half began. Finally, the several hundred spectators noticed Mitt making an agonizingly slow approach to the cinder track. “Mitt kept falling and getting up, falling and getting up, and eventually he just crawled across the line,” [childhood friend Graham] McDonald recalled. It could have been one of the most humiliating moments of his young life. But then the crowd began to rise to its feet, giving Mitt a standing ovation for his effort. “It was definitely looked upon as a show of character. Other people would have quit,” another classmate, Sidney Barthwell, Jr., said.

The authors write that Romney learned a lesson about pacing himself that he keeps in mind to this day. But he probably learned another lesson: people like the scrappy underdog. Gingrich has played that role in this campaign virtually the entire time. Romney has played the frontrunner, the too-perfect contender it is easy to respect, but not root for.

Now Romney’s campaign is in free fall. Gingrich’s aggression is legendary, and it is not missing from this fight. Romney thinks he needs someone like Jeb Bush to come to his rescue. But Bush knows better. Romney will have to embody his own campaign message: he’ll have to earn it.