Jim Antle makes a persuasive case that Mitt Romney is the 2012 Republican front-runner, and he makes a good argument that the GOP should not repeat past mistakes by nominating him:

Conservatives rightly value tradition, but this GOP custom is one they need to rethink. Romney is a spectacular mismatch with the Republican base of 2012. There are also good reasons to think he would struggle mightily in a general election against Barack Obama, or at least hopelessly muddle key parts of the Republican message. Republicans have gone down this road before, most recently when they nominated John McCain.

Jim is right that the GOP shouldn’t hand the nomination to Romney, but the 2008 race shows us some of the reasons why they probably will. Looking at the likely 2008 field in early 2007, it would have been easy to conclude that McCain had huge, probably insurmountable problems in his relationship with his party. During 2007, those problems became more obvious and glaring as McCain led the push for the immigration bill favored by the Bush administration, which McCain and his allies in the Senate defended largely by labeling its opponents as bigots. Many conservative activists were understandably hostile to his candidacy, and Romney (the very same supposedly fatally flawed, mandate-loving Romney) had become the default alternative for many movement conservatives. By the fall of 2007, McCain’s campaign seemed to be on its last legs, and it seemed that it would not be “his turn” in 2008.

Huckabee was able to divert enough social conservative support away from Romney that McCain kept besting him in one state after another. Romney was strongest with activists and did very well in contests that disproportionately rewarded superior organization, so he tended to dominate in caucuses except for Iowa, and fell short in primaries with larger electorates. Thanks to a field that split the conservative vote, McCain was able to eke out important early victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, and from there went to win most of the larger primaries in early February. McCain managed the Florida win partly by lying about Romney’s position on the Iraq war, and partly thanks to the last-minute endorsement from the then-popular Charlie Crist. The Republican winner-take-all system permitted McCain to wrap up the nomination without winning more than 40% of the vote in any competitive contest.

To avoid a similar outcome this time, the GOP has tried to change its primary calendar so that better-known or better-funded candidates can’t grab the nomination so quickly. One problem is that many of the first contests are scheduled too early in the year and conflict with national party requirements. As The Boston Globe reported last month:

More than a third of the states have early Republican presidential primary elections scheduled next year that would violate national party rules, throwing the campaign calendar into disarray and risking sanctions that would diminish their influence at the nominating convention.

While confusion over the schedule makes it more difficult for campaigns to plan for these early contests, we could end up seeing something very similar to 2008 as the candidate with the greatest name recognition and/or greatest resources takes a prohibitive lead. The longer other, lesser-known candidates take to get into the race, the harder it will be for them to raise money and compete with Romney’s organization.

Had movement leaders and activists been in charge of determining the nomination, there would have been no way that McCain could win. As it turned out, Republican voters were far more likely to cast their votes for the two candidates that activists declared unacceptable, namely Huckabee and McCain. Many activists and pundits have re-drawn the boundaries of party orthodoxy in the last few years, and they have decided that any support for an individual mandate anywhere at any time is a serious flaw. Romney now finds himself on the wrong side of the line, but for once Romney has stayed the same while the attitudes of the party’s ideological enforcers have changed.

Because of the politics of health care, Romney now seems to have an equally disastrous liability that is supposed to wreck his candidacy in the same way that immigration legislation should have ended McCain’s campaign. In the end, McCain recovered, and he did so mainly by talking about immigration as little as possible, and opportunistically claiming that he had learned his lesson and appreciated the importance of enforcement. It didn’t matter that these claims were contrary to everything he had said previously on the issue. Romney has done more than that by arguing for repeal of the health care legislation.

Another important difference between them is that Romney has a lot more goodwill among conservatives than McCain ever had, and he pursued the nomination in 2008 as a conservative alternative to McCain. He may not have been very credible in that role, but he definitely didn’t run against conservatives in the way that McCain did in 2000. During the health care debate, Romney was obviously an opponent of the federal legislation, and so as far as most Republicans are concerned he ended up on the right side of the issue. Yes, I find his efforts to reconcile his health care legislation in Massachusetts and his opposition to federal health care legislation desperate and frequently disingenuous, but I am not one of his likely supporters or someone Romney needs to win over. In addition to the moderate Republican voters he should be able to win, Romney will probably be able to retain enough conservative supporters from last time to hold off his challengers. Romney should have the means to dominate most early contests, and he should also have the fundraising to compete effectively if the nomination fight is drawn out. Romney’s greatest problem within the GOP and as a general election candidate is that he is perceived (correctly!) as an unprincipled opportunist who can’t be trusted. That said, how many Republican and Republican-leaning voters are there who regard Romney as untrustworthy and don’t see Obama as even worse?

The rise of Romney as a national Republican leader has been a strange thing to observe. By all rights, he should be as irrelevant to national Republican politics as Olympia Snowe, but in his eagerness to pander to the right and the conservative movement’s desperation to find a candidate to rally around Romney acquired a national leadership role in the party to which he is not very well-suited. His emergence as the 2012 front-runner is a reminder of the ongoing unfortunate effect that John McCain has had on the GOP for the last decade. By his presence in the 2000 and 2008 presidential fields, McCain has helped to drive conservatives to support alternatives in Bush and Romney that have been and will be disastrous for most conservative policy goals, and because of that Romney is in a leading position for the 2012 nomination that should be impossible for him to win.