In reality, his ostensible liberal allies like the late Ted Kennedy saw an opening to advance their own priorities, and in Mr. Romney they took advantage of a politician who still doesn’t seem to understand how government works. It’s no accident that RomneyCare’s most vociferous defenders now are in the White House and left-wing media and think tanks. They know what happened, even if he doesn’t. ~The Wall Street Journal

Jacob Heilbrunn cites this WSJ editorial as evidence that the “war against Romney has begun,” but this overlooks how unsympathetic the WSJ editors were to Romney in the last cycle as well. Romney’s support among conservative elites and activists was often shallower than it was for many of the other candidates. Support for Romney seemed to be based in little more than the idea that “at least he’s not Huckabee or McCain!” This was a strange reaction, since Romney had been well to the left of Huckabee and McCain for most of his adult life and political career, but Romney promised to give movement conservatives exactly what they wanted (whatever that might be at the time). As a result, movement conservatives could be reasonably confident that Romney had no enduring principles that would get in the way of that. Since then, Romney has been paying his dues, supporting Republicans around the country with his PAC, and building up another formidable campaign organization.

The good news for Romney is that the 2008 cycle showed just how limited the influence of the movement and party’s ideological gatekeepers really is when it comes to determining the outcome of primaries. Conservative media of all kinds declared that Huckabee and McCain were completely unacceptable for different reasons, and most primary electorates ignored these official condemnations. Most Southern primaries went to Huckabee, and most of the rest went to McCain. Romney dominated in almost all of the caucus states by virtue of his superior resources and organization, but he always kept coming up short against McCain when he had to compete in states with larger electorates.

Huckabee’s successes in 2008 and his continued popularity have demonstrated the extent to which social and religious conservatives make up much of the conservative coalition. Huckabee benefited greatly from this because he was the one 2008 candidate who made social issues a major theme of his campaign, and as a former pastor and an outspoken evangelical he appealed to many of these voters by being “one of them.” If Huckabee does not join the fray this cycle, those voters are even more likely to be split among four or five candidates instead of rallying behind him.

Gingrich, Bachmann, Pawlenty, Santorum, and Cain could divide this part of the conservative vote. At least three of them can credibly speak the language of religious conservatives to one degree or another, and Bachmann and Pawlenty can appeal to evangelical identity politics, but with all of them in the mix it is less likely that any one of them will prevail. For his part, Romney could pick up some of this support, as there are some social conservatives and evangelicals who have supported him in the past. As of right now, Romney appears to be the only viable candidate to win moderate Republican votes in large numbers, but Huntsman could complicate that.

It isn’t a given that any candidate that conservative elites reject is one that will have more popular support, but the 2008 experience suggests that the movement elite’s understanding of what rank-and-file voters want and like is badly skewed by elite preferences. Romney transformed himself into a standard-issue Republican for 2007-08, and for the last three years he has been struggling to keep up with political changes inside the GOP. That said, for the most part he has latched onto almost any line of attack against Obama that Republicans want to make. As far as I’m concerned, Romney has little or no credibility as a conservative, but if Republicans want a well-funded candidate eager to bash Obama on the economy and make frequent references to American greatness Romney is the candidate they’re going to get behind.

The one small snag for Romney may be the Huntsman candidacy. If Huckabee helped doom Romney by winning a large part of the conservative vote Romney was seeking, Huntsman could undermine Romney by taking just enough of the moderate vote that Romney may need. That doesn’t mean that Huntsman will become a competitive candidate, much less that he will win anywhere, but that he will bleed away just enough support from Romney that others could take advantage.

If it threatens to steal away moderate voters, Huntsman’s campaign could help Romney with conservatives in the way that McCain’s 2000 campaign unintentionally helped Bush. Bush was the de facto frontrunner coming into the race, but he had started campaigning as the moderate “reformer with results” and conservatives were appropriately wary of him. Bush expected that he would have to head off challenges from the right, but none of candidates to his right posed that much of a threat. McCain became the insurgent candidate attacking Bush from the Republican left, and his fan base in the media encouraged him. This had the effect of letting Bush present himself as the conservative alternative to McCain’s media-backed candidacy. There’s no question that mainstream media outlets are pushing Huntsman as openly and desperately as they once promoted McCain in 1999-2000. When I was reading the latest glowing Huntsman profile in Time, it occurred to me that Huntsman is the politician mainstream journalists hoped and wanted Romney to be, and some of them are doing their best to present Huntsman that way.