All indications are that Mitt Romney has a real primary fight on his hands. Long suspected as being a Republican in Name Only by many of his party's hard-core conservatives, he's faced with two rivals for the GOP presidential nomination — Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — with strong appeal to that key segment of the party.
But Romney has some critical advantages. Not the least of them is he's been a presidential candidate before, running against a politician — Sen. John McCain — who was an experienced national campaigner himself.
As Perry's Federal Reserve gaffe demonstrated this week, Romney's kind of experience is no small matter.
Romney has other advantages. As Ronald Brownstein points out for the National Journal, it's likely Bachmann and Perry will split some of the Republican voters Romney would have the most trouble attracting.
That could allow Romney to get a plurality of Republican votes in places like Iowa and South Carolina, two early states in the primary season.
A Brownstein excerpt:
For Romney, the new alignment offers one clear advantage: the possibility that the voters least likely to support him will be splintered between two opponents rather than consolidating behind one. Both in his 2008 bid, and in early 2012 polling, Romney has run best with voters holding at least a four-year college degree and those who do not identify as evangelical Christians — what might be called the party's managerial wing. Romney has always struggled with the party's populist wing, composed mostly of evangelical Christians and Republicans without a college degree.
The Republican coalition now divides virtually evenly between the economically-focused managers and the culturally-conservative, viscerally anti-Washington populists. In 2008, according to an ABC news cumulative analysis of exit polls, the GOP primary electorate split almost exactly in half between voters with and without a four-year college degree; likewise just under half of Republican voters (44 percent) identified as evangelical Christians.
Bachmann is an ideal opponent for Romney because she electrifies the populist voters most resistant to him, but remains a hard sell for most managers. Perry is a vastly bigger threat to Romney because Texas' strong job-creation numbers gives him a much better chance than Bachmann of bridging the party's two camps by attracting managerial Republicans. Yet Perry's hard-right rhetoric and record (especially on social issues) makes it likely that he will still draw most of his support from the populist wing.
That dynamic creates the possibility that the populist voters most resistant to Romney will divide between Perry and Bachmann rather than uniting behind either.
Also, despite Romney's public awkwardness and occasional poor choice of words ("Corporations are people, my friend") the tendency of some in the current Republican field to outdo him in outlandish or out-of-touch remarks can only elevate him. To use a term that has become associated with President Obama, Romney appears the adult in the room.
Just this week, for instance, Bachmann promised that if she were to become president, she would return $2 a gallon gasoline to the nation's gas pumps.
And in a radio interview, she said voters were worried about the rise of the "Soviet Union" which, of course, hasn't existed for 20 years.
Perry made his infamous threat against Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and followed up with his doubts about the human contribution to global warming and skepticism about evolution.
As Adam Serwer wrote for the Washington Post's The Plum Line blog:
GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has settled on a rather low-key strategy of avoiding controversy, even as he allows his rivals to all discredit themselves with outlandish statements.
If the last 24 hours are any indication, there's something to this approach. In a single day, almost all of his opponents have said something that has attracted negative national media attention and should be raising real concerns among GOP establishment figures about their fitness for the presidential campaign.
Besides letting his Republican rivals, through their actions and statements, raise questions about whether they're ready for prime time, Romney appears to be pacing himself out of an awareness that it's a long campaign season and not wanting to wear out his welcome with voters too soon.
Anything can still happen. No one has a lock on the GOP nomination. But considering how many Republicans clearly want someone other than him to be the nominee, Romney still appears to have some significant advantages.