To the long list of M-words that have already weighed down his troubled candidacy – Mormonism, moderate, Massachusetts and money – Mitt Romney is today facing another: the Mason-Dixon line.
With primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, the road to the White House passes through the Deep South, a difficult stage of the journey for almost any Republican candidate who hails from the Yankee north. The civil rights era in the 1960s turned the GOP into a party of the Bible belt and the Sunbelt. Mitt Romney, for all his attempts to pander to the right, still looks suspiciously like a Nelson Rockefeller Republican at a time when the party strongly favours Barry Goldwaters.
To me, however, the former Massachusetts Governor also resembles another candidate who hailed from a famous political family, struggled under the burden of parental expectation and found it difficult to gain the approbation of his party, still less its genuine affection: Al Gore.
If ever there was a case of a candidate getting lost in his own campaign, it was Gore in 2000. Though he wanted to champion his signature issue, global warming, his advisers talked him out of it. Though he was one of the most prescient and innovative policy-makers of the post-war era, and particularly well credentialed to fight a new-millennial campaign, he and his advisers opted for crude populism, a 'poor against the powerful' tirade that hailed from the mid-1930s.
From start to finish, Gore let his campaign be shaped and guided by focus groups and polls, to the point where disgruntled aides sighed that they had rarely seen a candidate so thoroughly dependent on the numbers. Paradoxically, the Vice-President should have paid much closer heed to the advice from Naomi Wolf, who gained notoriety for urging him to wear 'earth tones.' Her main recommendation had nothing to do with his wardrobe. Instead, she argued that the real Al Gore should be allowed out of the closet – the smart, problem-solving policy wonk who seemed especially well credentialed to be a start-of-the-new-century president.
Throughout the campaign, Gore was also victimised by a hostile and unforgiving press, who turned relatively minor gaffes into major story lines. Whether it was the former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, his challenger in the primaries, or George W Bush in the fall, the press handicapped the race in favour of his opponents. Gore was deemed to have failed that all-important test: 'who would you prefer to have a beer with?' Does it not sound familiar?
Just as Gore looked like a man for the new millennium, Mitt Romney has the sort of skills-set that would appear to suit these straitened times. Arguably, he would be the most economically-literate GOP candidate of the post-war years. Certainly, he could boast the most successful career in business. Then there is his track record in Massachusetts, where he worked productively with a hostile state legislature, and his turnaround success at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
But just as Gore tried to be a Democratic populist, Romney has tried to position himself, even more implausibly, as a GOP populist. Like the former Vice-President, he has lost himself in his campaign.
It is too early to write off his chances in November, should he win the nomination. The results of the 2000 election, where Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, showed he was a much better candidate than his many detractors believed. And Romney is surely better suited to a general election contest than this primary cage-fight (the latest poll from the Washington Post suggested a photo-finish between Obama and Romney, were the election held this week).
But here he faces a problem with which Gore never had to contend: Bill Clinton moved the Democratic Party into the moderate mainstream, whereas the GOP in recent years has lurched towards the fringe right.
Mississippi and Alabama speak of that problem, and also remind the beleaguered Republican frontrunner of the challenge ahead. Since the 1960s, no Republican who did not either come from the Sunbelt or make it their political home has won a presidential election. On present form, Mitt Romney does not look bucking that trend.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.