There are only three times when most general-election voters pay close attention in a presidential race, and one of those times is right around the corner for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. As a new national figure emerges to secure his party’s nomination for president, the window opens for a brief period when voters will listen carefully and size that new leader up. The other two times are during party conventions and the autumn debates.
Romney does not appear to have serious opposition in the GOP primary, and the final proof of that will be if he wins both the South Carolina and Florida primaries later this month. At that point he needs to be ready for a withering assault from the Democrats, and intense scrutiny from the press. There will only be about one crucial week when the window is open. If he gets through that introduction to the general-election voters, he should be able to settle into a good pace and consolidate his base in the run-up to his nominating convention this summer, when the next window will open.
You may recall when another Bay State politician, John Kerry, first secured his presidential party nomination in 2004. At that exact time he got into a spinning match with the Bush White House over how he was for the Iraq war before he was against it (or was he against it before he was for it?) He was instantly portrayed as both a flip-flopper and as someone unsure on an important national security issue. And no matter how bad things got for President George W. Bush throughout the 2004 election cycle — and they got real bad — Senator Kerry was unable to break above the high 40s in the polls, ending up with 48% of the vote.
Bill Clinton came mighty close to perishing during this same window in 1992, when his dalliance with Gennifer Flowers became public, and his wife insulted cookie-baking moms across America. But in typical Clinton fashion they beat back those controversies, and were also blessed with hapless opposition from the Bush 41 White House.
The Obama White House has been characteristically undisciplined in its communications strategy towards Mitt Romney. They have been publicly hitting him since Fall 2011, when it would have been far smarter to lay low in the grass holding their best shots and let the other GOP candidates beat Romney up. All the Obama team did was elevate Romney in the eyes of Republican voters, and give the GOP frontrunner practice in answering their political charges. Governor Romney has also gotten a lot of practice in the myriad televised debates with his GOP rivals, while President Obama has been living in the usual White House cocoon, without a primary challenge, or having to answer hard questions.
At any rate, early February could see that first national window open on the Romney candidacy, especially if he wins both the South Carolina and Florida primaries. Or perhaps it will open when he secures the necessary 1144 delegates to be nominated on the first ballot in Tampa. But Romney should watch out. When the window opens, gale-force political winds sometimes come blowing through.
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