The vehemence of the opposition to John McCain in many conservative quarters this past week naturally raises the question of where these folks were before McCain gained momentum. Why wait until after Florida, when McCain seems well on his way, to roll out the most forceful criticism? Why wait until a few days before Super Tuesday to endorse Romney? The objections to McCain were always there, after all.
Looking over the dynamics of the past several months, and especially January, once the voting got going, I think you have to conclude that Romney’s negative charisma was the key reason. For months, many conservatives understood that a Giuliani or McCain candidacy could be a disaster, yet somehow there was never a serious coalescing around Romney. I don’t think his religion was to blame. Something about Romney just didn’t have the right ring to it; there was a sense that he would say anything and do anything, and that beneath the veneer might be another veneer, and another. It was—in a lesser dose, to be sure—something like the feeling so many Americans had about John Kerry in 2004.
So for months conservatives held out hope for Fred Thompson—the potential generic conservative mascot, acceptable to all—keeping an open mind about Romney but withholding serious support. Thompson, unfortunately, thoroughly failed to capitalize on the immense opportunity handed to him, and so throughout the summer and fall and into the winter the Republican race was held in a peculiar kind of limbo: the money wasn’t flowing, normally decisive opinion-shapers on the right remained uncommitted, and everyone seemed to be waiting to see what would happen (“maybe in this debate Thompson will show some energy”) rather than assertively making something happen. This created a race without any stable conservative presence, and opened the door for Huckabee’s temporary rise—which made any establishment conservative coalescence even less likely. Meanwhile Rudy Giuliani committed a kind of strategic suicide, and John McCain was left as the only simultaneously likeable and serious candidate running.
This was beginning to become apparent in the wake of Iowa, was reasonably clear after New Hampshire, and became crystal clear after South Carolina. But still many conservative heavyweights who were very eager to avoid a McCain candidacy did not line up behind Romney. Only after Florida, with his fate almost sealed, did a good number earnestly make his cause theirs. Why take so long? Why resist? Many conservatives seemed unable to get over a persistent concern about Romney, which naturally translated into distress about his electability in the general election. Once Thompson turned out to be a dud and the generic conservative slot was left empty, the nomination was Romney’s to lose. He seems very likely to have lost it.
Conservatives have serious reasons to worry about a McCain candidacy, to be sure. But if Mitt Romney couldn’t even win their votes all this time, shouldn’t we assume he would have had a lot of trouble winning other people’s votes in November?