Imagining the 2012 GOP race that could have been

Updated
 
What if Romney faced real challengers, instead of these two?
What if Romney faced real challengers, instead of these two?
Associated Press

Newt Gingrich chatted with National Review yesterday, and talked at some length about revelations that Mitt Romney, during his only experience in public office, liked higher gas prices. The former Speaker conceded that he “had not seen” Romney’s 2006 quotes on the issue, but added that the former governor is “ill positioned” on the issue because of his former position.

Alec MacGillis, who first reported on Romney’s prior support for higher gas prices, agreed with Gingrich’s larger assessment, but asked a good question: why hadn’t he seen Romney’s 2006 quotes on the issue?

Yes, Newt, Governor Romney is ill positioned on this issue. Then why haven’t you been saying so the past few weeks as you, Romney and Santorum have all tried to make an issue of high gas prices? Why was it left to a reporter working on a hunch to execute the simple Nexis search necessary to find the incriminating quotes by Romney from one of Massachusetts’ larger newspapers, from just six years ago?

I realize that Gingrich and Santorum are short of cash. But really, we’re not talking about a major investment here. Not to give my bosses any ideas, but a campaign intern could’ve done this.

At this point in professional politics, opposition research is simply a standard feature of a major campaign. It’s not unusual to see “oppo” teams working in statewide contests, and they’re simply a given for a national campaign.

But Gingrich’s team hasn’t made the effort. Neither has Santorum. Indeed, none of the other non-Romney campaigns have been organized and funded well enough to complete basic tasks like these.

MacGillis added, “It’s just another reminder of how weak the opposition is that Romney is struggling to put away in the primaries.” Quite right. Imagine what the 2012 Republican presidential nominating race would have looked like if Romney had one – just one – other credible opponent.

Regular viewers may recall we ran a segment in January, riffing off a clever observation Dave Weigel made on the similarities between the 2008 and 2012 races for the Republican nomination. From Dave’s Slate piece:

I’m thinking of a Republican primary. It starts with a candidate (John McCain/Mitt Romney) who ran once before, came in second place, and won over the party’s elite class without winning over its base. Other candidates, understandably unwilling to accept this, line up: An under-funded social conservative (Mike Huckabee/Rick Santorum), an elder statesman who’s walked to the altar three times (Rudy Giuliani/Newt Gingrich), a libertarian who wants to bring back the gold standard (Ron Paul/Ron Paul).

The conservative base is displeased. In the year before the primary, it pines for a perfect candidate. At the end of summer, on (September 5/August 13), it gets him: (Fred Thompson/Rick Perry). The dream candidate immediately rises to the top of national polls, but collapses after lazy, distaff debate performances. When the primaries arrive, he’s in single digits and reduced to attacking the front-runners.

The under-funded social conservative generates all kinds of buzz with a strong showing in Iowa, fizzles in New Hampshire, and then quietly starts to go away. The establishment guy, despite being hated by the party base, regroups after Iowa, wins big in New Hampshire, and starts his march in earnest towards the nomination. The savior candidate becomes a punch line, Ron Paul gets ignored, the thrice-married statesman, despite enjoying temporary frontrunner status a month before the voting began, drifts into irrelevance.

Yes, this all sounds familiar.

But there was one thing about the thesis that always troubled me: there’s no 2008 version of Romney in 2012.

Sure, Romney is obviously Romney, but when we’re drawing parallels to 2008, Romney is actually playing McCain’s role, not his own. If Romney is McCain, and Santorum is Huckabee, and Gingrich is Giuliani, and Perry is Thompson, who’s playing the role Romney played in 2008?

No one is; that’s the problem. This year’s race is missing one more candidate who could push that establishment frontrunner, expose his flaws, and conceivably even make him a better candidate.

In a way, this makes Romney very lucky – he’s on track to win his party’s presidential nomination without having been subjected to much scrutiny, effectively running unopposed by underfunded, unorganized, and often-clownish intra-party rivals. But I’m not sure this is, in the long term, doing Romney any favors – President Obama, who was much stronger in 2008 after having overcome Hillary Clinton’s exceptional campaign operation, has a re-election team in place that will be far stronger than anything Romney has seen.

Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney

Imagining the 2012 GOP race that could have been

Updated