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Romney’s campaign may be the first in history to be less than the sum of its parts.

-Alex Knepper

Until now, Mitt Romney’s campaign has defied the odds — an unexceptional, uncharismatic one-term governor with no big ideas, compelling narrative, or natural base of support doesn’t look like much of a potential frontrunner on paper. But the season’s historically weak field quite often leaves him looking like a king among fools — a kind of “least worst” candidate, if you will; someone who might be unremarkable but at least won’t embarrass the party.

Does Mitt Romney have a bold economic vision? No. Does he have plans to truly shrink the size of government? No. Does he want to use his platform to push for cultural changes in America? No. Does he have a grand foreign policy agenda that would be substantively different from the Obama years? No. Set aside bold visions — has he even proven, through his gubernatorial record, that he can implement piecemeal conservative reforms? No.

So what rationale do Republicans have to nominate this man?

Until now, the fallback answer has been the simple matter of electability. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are ghastly general-election candidates, we’re told; they’re either too extreme or too undisciplined to connect with swing voters — so in the name of defeating Obama, we must submit and nominate Romney.

But that reason is quickly collapsing upon itself as Rick Santorum outdoes Mitt Romney in poll after poll, in swing states ranging from Ohio to Florida.
It is highly possible — nay, highly probable — that Santorum’s general-election support will plummet, too, as voters learn about some of his more controversial votes and statements. Once he is defined by the Obama machine, he’ll become a sure loser, argue Romney’s supporters — and so we shouldn’t put stock in these early polls.

Again, that’s probably true, but it’s equally true for Romney, and we’re already witnessing his collapse. He’s proven himself to be, at times, as undisciplined as Newt Gingrich and imprudent as Rick Santorum. Romney’s unfavorability numbers have skyrocketed and he now badly trails the president in most polls. Romney has criticized President Obama for wanting to wage nuclear war against the Republican nominee instead of putting forward a positive agenda of his own. That argument ought equally to apply to Romney: if his strategy is to annihilate Obama — like he did to Gingrich and is planning on doing to Santorum — then he will find himself coming up short in November.

Ah, but Santorum is a proven loser, say Romney’s partisans. Business Week sums up the argument concisely: he lost his last race in a swing state by eighteen points. How can Republicans trust him to win with that big black mark hovering over his record?

But the only reason Romney didn’t lose by a similar margin that year is because he was too consumed by other ambitions to stay and fight. Republican governors have routinely won re-election in the Northeast, including in Massachusetts. In other blue states, such as Minnesota — the only state that didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and the state that put Al Franken and Jesse Ventura into office — Tim Pawlenty still held on, even in that devastating year for Republicans. But Romney left his post and decided to run for president instead. Polls at the time showed him losing to his strongest opponent by fifteen points. Why is this not disqualifying? At least Santorum gave it a shot against a similarly strong opponent.

It’s almost certainly true that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich would be abysmal general-election candidates who embarrass the party and drag Senate and House candidates down with them. Mitt Romney is banking on dragging his feet across the finish line by simply being the last one standing.

But for conservative voters who are sick and tired of nominating the ‘least-worst’ candidate — who are crying out for a champion that’s nowhere to be found — the question existing just won’t go away: Why does Mitt Romney deserve to be the nominee? If he cannot answer this question, he may yet lose.