Romney, Running Uphill

If Mitt Romney wins California's Republican primary tonight, much will be made of John McCain's decision on Monday to campaign in Massachusetts, the former governor's backyard, instead of the delegate-rich Golden State. McCain's decision to skip West Virginia today will certainly get less press. But it didn't escape voters' attention there that he failed to show up and sent a surrogate instead. A surrogate who didn't particularly want to be there: at the Charleston Civic Center this morning, he joked that he'd rather be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The joke did not go over well, drawing boos. One delegate screamed, "Go home!"

Unfortunately for Romney, who arrived in Charleston before dawn this morning, the decision to come to West Virginia didn't pay off. Mike Huckabee edged out Romney to win the GOP convention there. Aides traveling with Romney say he's still in striking distance in a host of other states today—Colorado, Montana, Alaska and North Dakota—making it likely, in their view, that tonight's national primary will raise more questions than it answers about the party's front runner. Still, the results may have surprised the Romney camp. In the hours before Huckabee's win, Romney's advisers were touting his ground game in the state. Romney's senior adviser there, John McCutcheon, told NEWSWEEK that Romney's team arrived in West Virginia in July 2006—well before any of his rivals. He called the other candidates' organizations there "skeletal and last-minute."

Still, Romney didn't take the loss lying down. A statement, issued by the campaign after the results from West Virginia were in, accused McCain of cutting "a backroom deal" with Huckabee, whom the statement calls "the tax-and-spend candidate [McCain] thought could best stop Governor Romney's campaign of conservative change." (Romney himself ignored questions about West Virginia at a polling site in Belmont, Mass., where the governor and his wife Ann voted this afternoon.)

In West Virginia Romney sought to portray McCain's previous primary successes as the result more of his fame than his character, telling the press that the Arizona senator has "benefited by the fact that he ran for president before and people knew his name." On the trail Romney is embracing his underdog status—"I've still got a ways to go to catch up to Senator McCain," he said—and he says he doesn't believe McCain's message is "catching fire." It's difficult to discern what John McCain is about, Romney says, other than that he is about saying it with straight talk.

"Senator McCain has proven that he will say anything to win this election," Romney told reporters. "He has taken on a very aggressive, bold strategy of misrepresentation, and it works in politics to a degree." Romney then listed several issues on which, he says, McCain has flip-flopped, including the Bush tax cuts: McCain once opposed them but has more recently voiced his support for the policy. It was a departure for Romney, who just a couple of days ago would have likely declined to be drawn into a tit-for-tat about an opponent's strategy.

The strong defense may stem from frustration. Romney's aides appear to be bewildered by what they perceive as the press's eagerness to quickly anoint McCain the clear front runner. "Hillary [Clinton] has won four contests; [Barack] Obama has won two," says Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. "So she's won twice as many as Obama, but people still treat that as a tossup; it could go either way. On our side, Romney's won four contests, McCain's won three … and somehow McCain's the front runner … What you'll see [on Super Tuesday] is both of them winning their share of states and delegates, and I think there will be a realization that there's not going to be a crowning of John McCain as the nominee. Instead, what you're going to see is the beginning of a long, hard slog to the convention."

Winning California would help pave the way. That explains Romney's last-minute decision to fly there and back yesterday so he could attend a half-hour rally in the state and address local media at an airport press conference. (Romney slept on the floor, underneath the tray tables, during the red-eye flight back to the East Coast.) At the rally Romney was introduced by conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt and California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. They focused on Romney's conservative credentials and laced into McCain for being a liberal. Minutes later Romney told reporters, "California is huge. There's something happening here in California that's big. The people in California are really concentrating on this race with renewed attention, and they're saying we want to have a conservative leader of our party." Romney credited the support he's receiving from conservative pundits, including Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, for helping fuel his resurgence in the state.

His new emphasis on the sanctity of marriage and his pro-life and anti-immigrant credentials haven't hurt either. As he fights for his political life, Romney is having to shift back to the candidate he was in Iowa, when he tried (and failed) to stave off Huckabee's ascent by talking less about the economy and more about social issues. Now Romney is trying that tactic again, cracking jokes in West Virginia today about the Framers rolling in their graves at same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Funny? Marginally. But, hey, he didn't mention anything about wanting to be in New Orleans.