Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007 | 7:30 a.m.
Not long ago Mitt Romney was a liberal Republican from Massachusetts, a rich Mormon with a history of supporting abortion and gay rights. In short, he was an unthinkable long shot to be his party's nominee for president.
Suddenly, though, Romney is the victor of the Iowa Straw Poll, which is an early indicator of electoral prospects, and he has opened up a big lead in New Hampshire polls.
He visited Nevada this week with a new poll in hand showing him 10 points ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson among Silver State Republicans.
Suddenly, he is well positioned to be the Republican nominee.
Although he trails Giuliani in national polls, Romney's strategy of gathering momentum in the early primary and caucus states is looking increasingly viable.
This turn of events reflects Romney's impressive organization in early states. But his sudden surge is in some ways an ominous sign for Republicans - his strength a sign of weakness in the GOP field more than anything, and a sign of the party's waning fortunes.
"Republicans were just not enthused about their run of candidates," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines , referring to the Iowa Straw Poll. In the 1999 straw poll, 9,000 more Iowa Republicans participated than this year.
In his quest to reverse the psychic doldrums of the Republican rank and file, Romney is playing a tricky game: He offers Republicans a salve from the Bush years by being known as a pragmatist and competent manager who has succeeded in business, philanthropy and government. But he is trying to make that sale to the party's activists, who are still deeply ideological, perhaps more than ever given the polarizing tenor of the Iraq war debate.
Romney, son of the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, made at least $250 million as founder of Bain Capital, an investment bank and venture capital firm. He is credited with saving Salt Lake City's Winter Olympic Games. He was elected governor of deeply Democratic Massachusetts in 2002, and last year helped craft a health care plan meant to bring medical insurance to every resident, not usually a policy specialty of Republicans.
In an interview this week the pragmatic technocrat side of Romney often revealed itself.
He blamed failure in Iraq for the landslide Republican defeat in 2006. "My view is that people were disappointed and surprised by the developments in Iraq following the collapse of Saddam Hussein. I think people expected victory declared on the aircraft carrier meant it was over," he said, referring to Bush's declaration of the end of combat operations on an aircraft carrier in May 2003.
Other Republicans, including Giuliani, have offered other, often novel reasons for the Republican defeat, although polling supports Romney's view.
(Romney said he supports Bush's policy of escalation in Iraq but wants to reevaluate it after a few more months.)
The war was "not as well managed as it could have been," he said, showing an insistent focus on management.
Romney said his management technique was to put together a "team of superb people, more capable than myself in some cases," although he said he likes to be highly engaged in decision-making.
At an event for volunteers in Las Vegas this week, he mentioned making decisions based on "rigorous analysis, not just opinion," which, whether he knew it or not, was a subtle rebuke of the Bush administration and its ideological rigidity.
His focus on analysis and debate offers a contrast from many reports of the Bush White House, including those offered by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Larry Wilkerson, the chief of staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Romney's management skill is also paying off in early campaigning in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hamsphire Survey Center, said Romney's campaign is already at full strength and operating with the intensity he usually sees in the final months of a campaign.
Giuliani, meanwhile, appears to be coasting, Smith said.
Romney is benefiting from other Giuliani woes, as well.
A series of exposes, as diverse as they have been numerous, has revealed weaknesses in the Giuliani candidacy. From his rich personal life, which included a public affair with his current wife while he was mayor of New York, to questions about his performance as mayor, including his decision to place the city's emergency management center in the World Trade Center, the revelations have begun to seep down into the public's consciousness.
And if they haven't yet, they will, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political scientist who studies the nomination process. He noted that even if Republican voters don't trust the mainstream media, which are delivering this barrage right now, they will trust the mail and TV advertisements of Giuliani's Republican opponents.
Romney's other Republican opponents have also shown weaknesses. Sen. John McCain is out of money, and his entire candidacy is staked on American success in Iraq; TV star Thompson has shown a Hamlet-like indecision about running, while going through three campaign managers even though he is not an official candidate.
If Romney wins the nomination by winning in early states and blowing through the rest of the field with his momentum, he is probably best positioned to move back to the center, given that it's his natural home.
Still, whether Romney will satisfy Republican voters is an open question.
His Mormonism could be a problem among evangelical voters, many of whom consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a perversion of Christianity.
Romney has shored up his status with some Republican voters by leaving behind his former stance s on abortion and gay rights and embracing party orthodoxy on those issues. (Although not always smoothly - this week he seemed to imply on "Face to Face With Jon Ralston" that he is fine if abortion remains legal in states such as Nevada, even though he previously said he favored a constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortion everywhere.)
This will surely open him up to charges of flip-flopping from Republican opponents; they teed off on the Democrats ' 2004 nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, using the same mode of attack.
For Romney, perhaps it comes down to this: Will Republican voters flip-flop on flip-flopping?