Mark Shields: An obvious Republican front-runner
By Mark Shields
Let me admit upfront that I have a real soft spot for people who dare to run for public office. For most of us, life is a series of quiet successes or setbacks. If you and I are the two finalists to be promoted to regional manager and you get the job, the local press — when it announces your success — does not add that “Shields was passed over because of his erratic behavior at the company Christmas party” or “there are unresolved questions about his expense account.”
But if you’re a candidate, then by 9 p.m. on election night, everybody you ever car-pooled or double-dated with or sat next to in high-school study hall will know whether you won or, much likelier, you lost. To run for public office is to risk, even to invite, public rejection. Losing can be both publicly painful and painfully public.
This is especially true for any losing presidential nominee. Think about it. Almost regardless of the career achievements that preceded his winning the nomination leading to that unsuccessful White House run, his national defeat immediately becomes the first line of his obituary. The 1984 Democratic nominee, Walter “Fritz” Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide, sometime after that defeat, ran into fellow Democrat George McGovern, who had lost in a similar landslide, in 1972 to Richard Nixon. Mondale, the story goes, asked McGovern, “Tell me, George, when does it stop hurting?” McGovern’s wistful answer: “I’ll let you know, Fritz. I’ll let you know.”
True, Nixon did survive his 1960 defeat to John F. Kennedy and — even after losing his 1962 campaign for California governor to Democrat Pat Brown — come back in 1968 to win both the GOP nomination and the White House. But neither party in the 11 presidential elections since has seriously considered renominating its losing standard-bearer.
But on the basis of available evidence from the 2014 campaign and survey information from the two historically influential battleground states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that could be about to change for the Republicans. A University of New Hampshire poll of Republican voters showed the 2012 GOP nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, to be the first choice for 2016 of 39 percent, which meant he trounced his closest runners-up, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, by a 5-1 margin. In Iowa, the numbers were equally impressive. Romney, in an admittedly small sample of Republican voters in a USA Today poll, was the 2016 pick of 35 percent of Republicans, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was second with just 9 percent.
Probably more significantly, Romney is almost certainly the most requested Republican surrogate invited by GOP candidates — in both red and blue states — to campaign in their behalf. As President Barack Obama’s own polling numbers have fallen and embattled 2014 Democratic candidates stress their independence from the White House, this election year role reversal between the 2012 nominees is even more dramatic.
Only Romney knows and appreciates the physical and emotional sacrifices his family members (to which he is genuinely devoted) made in the 2012 campaign and whether he and they are up to it one more time. But don’t be totally surprised if the 2012 standard-bearer answers the challenge, because, after all, how many times do you get the chance to rewrite the first line of your obituary?