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Romney Rising

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Mitt Romney laid out a plan for winning the GOP nomination months ago, and it included, raising the most money, winning some or all of the debates, and winning the Ames straw poll as the key steps to setting up strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, which would at a minimum keep him in the race through the big February 2 showdown, and which might allow him to land a knock-out blow in South Carolina or Florida.

The plan is rolling out, just like previous Romney plans to turn-around scores of companies, stage a successful Olympics, win the Massachusetts governorship, or reform the health insurance system of the Bay State. Over and over again in Romney’s professional life you see the goal identified, then the analysis followed by the plan followed by implementation in a disciplined and ultimately successful fashion. When I wrote the book and focused on his career for a year, this pattern is ghard to miss: Get a good plan. Stick with it. One day at a time, one milestone after another.

Yesterday’s Ames vote falls exactly into this pattern as a crucial milestone reached, as the Washington Post’s Dan Baltz and Michael Shear note at the start of their story:

With a convincing victory in the Republican straw poll here Saturday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney vaulted himself into the next phase of a presidential nomination battle pitting his traditional early-state strategy against a more unorthodox approach by national front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Romney’s win in the nonbinding Ames contest, sealed by his appeals to the party’s conservative base and generous spending all around the state, underscored his attempt to concentrate time and resources on the opening states of Iowa and New Hampshire, believing that early victories will propel him to the nomination.

As RealClearPolitics’ Tom Bevan notes, Romney had not only to win, but also to clear the mystery hurdle of expectations, which he did:

Mitt Romney did what he needed to do yesterday, which was to come away from Ames with a decent-sized win. On Friday, I suggested a 10-point margin of victory was the minimum bar Romney needed to meet expectations, and he cleared that hurdle, winning by 13.4%.

Marc Ambinder calls the Romney victory “a combination of plod and money,” but that overlooks the 4,516 voters who don’t suddenly disapparate and leave Iowa for good. That’s the spine of the organization that will show up on whatever night in early January the caucuses are held. When Politico’s Jonathan Martin’s post is headlines “Romney Wins Big,” you get the only key fact you need. When Byron York reaches for the conclusion that Romney “seemed a little less the juggernaut than he had seemed just a day before,” you get the sense that many analysts really wanted an upset that didn’t come.

The only other Republican who came out of the Ames contest of organizational skill and volunteer intensity is Mike Huckabee, though not with the close second that would have established him as a genuine challenger to Romney on the right. If the southern governor begins to gather in contributions between now and September 30, he could conceivably be a factor in Iowa in early January, but it might be Fred Thompson more than Mitt Romney who is alarmed by Huckabee’s faithful. Indeed, if Governor Romney had wanted someone to stay strong enough to lower his own expectations in Iowa while creating problems for the still-not-real Thompson campaign, he’d have picked Mike Huckabee.

Fred Thompson isn’t a candidate, but for a candidate-in-waiting-who-will-soon-be-a-candidate, the 203 Iowans who showed up to show the flag doesn’t convey the sense of a wave about to break. When the Giuliani and McCain campaigns formally bowed out they limited the injury to their reputations and perhaps sent a signal to their troops to vote for anyone not named Mitt, but the Thompson “movement” if it is a real “movement” and not a Beltway-MSM pageant, should have had more than 203 excited statement-makers drive themselves to Ames. They didn’t.

So Romney wins big, and doesn’t change a thing in his plan. He will spend the next five months stomping through Iowa and New Hampshire with side trips to South Carolin and Florida, focusing –in a friendly way– on the differences between the mayor and himself and pounding home to GOP voters that in this looming campaign and the presidency beyond and the war which will define it, you are going to want a leader who can conceive and execute a plan.

Republican voters —and I had a chance to spend a couple of hours in Q&A with a couple of hundred of them in Philly on Thursday night— know the campaign ahead is going to be extraordinarily difficult. Byron York frets about the intensity level of the GOP base, and that concern is an excellent one. I suspect what he takes for a lack of intensity is actually a level of scrutiny of the contenders far beyond what we have seen in our lifetimes.

The GOP electorate is remarkably open to whichever candidate –the Massachusetts Mormon businessman, the big city tough guy, the television D.A.– who can win. They aren’t going to stay home when Hillary approaches, but they are studying in an extended and close way, the field to find out who can take that battle to Hillary –and, crucially, who can win. I polled my audience on the key question of whether they would vote for the other guy, and they all would. Not one “I’m taking my ball and going home” Romney, Giuliani, or Thompson absolutist.

The Ames win is another big bit of data in the massive collective analysis underway. Hats off to Governor Huckabee, but he isn’t going to be the GOP nominee. Thus of the three who might be (four if you count Newt), the one who took away some big pluses from yesterday is Romney. That’s what registers. That’s what matters to the GOP base that is watching it all and asking itself: Who can beat Hillary. You can’t beat Hillary by losing contests.

And that was part of the plan.


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