Republicans are doing something strange at the moment – choosing a candidate whom hardly any of them actually likes. Though Mitt Romney won the Florida primary handily yesterday, the Republican nomination is not so much being won as it is defaulting to him for lack of a compelling alternative.
Advocates of Mr Romney’s electability elaborate such qualities as his lack of obvious mental defect, the non-extremity of his views, and his superior financial and organisational resources. Seldom do they evince any affection or enthusiasm for the man himself.
In this respect, Mr Romney resembles two similarly unloved Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, who lost winnable races because of their personalities – while George W. Bush was reelected, because ordinary people felt he wasn’t trying to be someone different from who he was.
Romney, Kerry and Gore are all versions of the same political type. Statuesque, handsome, impeccably credentialed, they didn’t overcome humble origins or broken families. Mr Romney’s background is alien to most Americans not because he descends from polygamists but because his father was a governor of Michigan, a chief executive and a presidential candidate.
The unloved candidate struggles to establish his plain-folks ordinariness in ways that inevitably backfire. He touts his plebian tastes – pick-up trucks, country music, trashy food – and inevitably gets it wrong, as when Mr Romney defended his claims as a sportsman by asserting that he had been hunting for rodents and varmints “more than two times.”
The public usually picks up on this gap between who the candidate really is and how he wants to be seen. Yet even more than Gore and Kerry, Mr Romney is running away from his own perfection. He must grapple with the affliction of excessive handsomeness and struggles to seem ordinary despite his riches. For the time being, he must disguise his reasonableness, his record of businesslike practicality and his ideological moderation. The number of people who can sympathise with his problems is very small indeed.