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Romney’s Surprising Second

Saturday, March 11, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt

Back from the north in time to note this:

With 1,427 ballots cast, the Senate majority leader from Nashville received 526 votes, or 36.9 percent — and all but 97 of them were cast by Tennessee delegates. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made a surprising second-place finish with 205 votes, or 14.4 percent.

I had thought the story coming out of Memphis would be the extraordinary weakness of John McCain among Republican activists, made obvious by his ill-considered attempt to hide that weakness with his “write-in Bush” appeal to the gathering’s delegates.

McCain’s transparent dodge only reinforced the undeniable reality that he cannot be considered a frontrunner to win a GOP nomination after his primary meltdown in 2000, McCain-Feingold, and the Gang of 14. To resurrect his presidential ambitions McCain needs to go head-on at his party weakness, but he refuses to do so, expecting a coronation instead of a campaign. (Whoever advised him to throw a ruse towards the Beltway pundits who want to be persuaded that Senator McCain is a front-runner as opposed to the activists who could make him one should be dumped. No one can run a winning campaign with camouflage.) If McCain wants to be a contender, he needs to ask for and earn Republican votes, not declare that he doesn’t need them.

But now there’s a second storyline as well, which will trumpet Romney’s second place finish. True, it isn’t a huge sample, but it is in the south and it is in the Majority Leader’s back yard.

I caught a bit of Chris Matthews’ Hardball on Friday night, and heard the buzz about Romney’s speech. The Massachusetts Governor is great with a crowd, but I figured Senator Allen would grab the second slot with Virginia so close by. Dick Wadhams, Allen’s Senate Chief of Staff and political guru, will be having some serious talks with the field staff tonight. Where were the busloads of Allen loyalists? If a blue-state governor can get his people to Memphis, why not the red state senator/governor who knows the interstates?

I conduct my own straw poll before every partisan and some non-partisan but conservative audiences I address.

Allen is always first. Guiliani and Romney in second and third, and everyone else a distant fourth and following, including the Majority Leader.

Romney has the 2008 caucus/primary calendar in his favor –Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan are strongholds, with only South Carolina as dangerous ground– and before another few months the chattering class will be sick of the “Can a Mormon be President?” meme.

Straw polls don’t mean much, except it is all there is to talk about between now and Iowa. Better to be second than third.

And for every straw poll between today and Iowa the Romney people now have an answer: “We did fine in Tennessee, and it was discounted. Either straw polls matter or they don’t. We’ll be there in Iowa, and New Hampshire and Michigan and everywhere else. Have you compared our talent to theirs? Have you noticed our fund raising?”

What really matters between now and Iowa is the next seven months: Who is out there working to keep the Senate in GOP control and who is willing to swing from the hips when it comes to supporting the president? The GOP base loves W, and the GOP base loves a fight.

Senator Allen and Governor Romney are the two folks in demand when party loyalists assemble. (Rudy, too, but it doesn’t look like a campaign to the pros.) Allen’s got a re-elect to run, and Romney doesn’t. Advantage: Romney.

More on Monday, after I’ve unpacked.

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