When John McCain won the Florida primary, putting him well on the way to sealing the Republican nomination, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I had been hoping the GOP would nominate Mitt Romney. Not only did many religious conservatives deeply distrust Romney, I felt he would be easy to expose as a phony say-anything-to-win kind of politician. In contrast, McCain was a media darling with a "maverick" image, even though he also flip-flopped on many issues while seeking the presidency.
Many factors favored the Democrats this year, in particular George W. Bush's rock-bottom approval ratings and the lopsided right direction/wrong track numbers every pollster has found. But it seemed to me in February that the Republicans had nominated their strongest general-election candidate, while our two remaining primary contenders seemed to me to have big hurdles to overcome in the general.
When McCain frittered away the spring and early summer, reshuffling his campaign staff several times, I started to realize he was a weaker candidate than I'd previously believed. Watching McCain's excrutiatingly long non-answer on whether insurance companies that cover Viagra should also cover birth control pills, I remember thinking that Romney would never have fumbled that question so badly. He would have had a slick reply along safe Republican lines, such as, "I don't think the government should be in the business of telling private insurers what to cover."
After Obama picked Joe Biden as a running mate, Republican talking heads were all over the lack of executive experience on the Democratic ticket. Of course McCain doesn't have any either, and his running mate was mayor of a small town (where the city manager did most of the work) and then a governor who abused her power less than halfway through her first term. Romney had a legitimate claim to executive experience, having run a large company and then a state government. Would he have made as dumb a VP pick as McCain did? I doubt it.
Each time McCain loses a debate to Obama, I've thought that Romney would have done better on the stage. Sure, he was a big phony, but he carried himself with more confidence and spoke with more authority in his voice. Perhaps Obama would have won all the post-debate polls anyway, but I think Romney would have made it closer.
I also think Romney would have been a stronger voice for Republicans on economic policy in light of this fall's meltdown in the banking sector and stock market. Here's the Republican National Committee's latest ad, pounding Obama on his inexperience in connection with the current financial crisis:
Obama's relative inexperience is a vulnerability, but he has handled himself well this fall and done a good job answering the economic questions in all three debates. McCain has seemed erratic by comparison. Romney would have been able to play his "I know the business sector" card, and I doubt he would have tried to get the first debate delayed, which looked like an odd stunt from McCain.
Along the same lines, watch this brand-new ad from McCain and try to tell me Romney wouldn't have been more credible delivering this message:
Romney would have looked more confident and sounded more polished. Also, Romney's biography would make it easier to believe he had a plan to restore people's savings, jobs and financial security.
Most important, Romney has not been in Congress for the last eight years, voting with President Bush more than 90 percent of the time. McCain has, which is the focus of this brand-new ad from Obama:
By the way, the Service Employees International Union put together a very clever ad on the theme of McCain being the same as Bush (or worse).
I acknowledge that Romney probably would have lost the general election. The economic indicators and trends in voter registration point to a Democratic wave. Romney's past history of supporting abortion rights and even gay rights would have created major problems with part of the Republican base. Also, perhaps there would have been great resistance to electing a Mormon president. (For what it's worth, I think Romney would be the GOP nominee if not for his religion.)
But McCain is just not running a good campaign, and the economic issues, where McCain is weak, have more salience now than the military and security issues that are allegedly McCain's strengths. It's hard for me to believe that Romney would have done worse against Obama.
What do you think?
UPDATE: The emergence of "Joe the Plumber" strengthens my case. McCain mentioned him about 20 times during last night's debate, apparently without sufficient vetting. It turns out that Joe the Plumber is not a licensed plumber, owes back taxes, and is a registered Republican (not an independent). Oh yeah, and he's also related to Charles Keating's son-in-law (as in "Keating Five" Charles Keating).
Would the Romney campaign have staked so much on "Joe the Plumber" without doing due diligence? I don't think so.