It doesn’t take many mental contortions to figure out whom Mitt Romney would support in a three-way race between Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Marco Rubio. Obviously he would support none of them, because Romney is waiting for the three to end up in a deadlocked convention from which Romney emerges the consensus nominee. Just kidding, sort of. The dude wants to endorse Rubio, and it’s only a matter of time.
How about this weekend? Romney convincingly won the New Hampshire primary in 2012 and owns a proper gentleman’s lakeside estate in Wolfeboro. He remains popular in the state and could give Rubio, already rising in New Hampshire and elsewhere, the surge he needs to overtake Trump—and effectively put Trump to bed for good.
Romney supposedly had no plans to endorse prior to the New Hampshire primary but opened himself to a last-minute change of mind after witnessing Rubio’s strong Iowa performance. He has since been crunching the numbers to determine whether his endorsement would shift enough votes to push Rubio over the top. “Romney,” CNN reports, “has a trademark reaction to such talk: Is there data to support the argument that Rubio is in play to defeat Trump in New Hampshire?”
Well? There’s more data to support that possibility than there was, say, a few days ago. Rubio is rising and Trump is dipping, but not quite enough to put a scare in Trump, yet. (Let us insert here the standard disclaimer that all polls are cheap and New Hampshire has lots of ornery voters who like to make snap decisions just to mess with people.) Rubio is most generously about 10 percentage points off of Trump’s pace. In other words, Rubio is just close enough to make this decision agonizing for a worrywart like Romney.
So why not just live a little and go for it? As CNN, which could be completely wrong, frames it, Romney “would put his personal prestige on the line and disappoint his other friends in the field.” As far as the “other friends in the field,” whatever. They won’t be around much longer. And is Jeb Bush still a “friend,” after he boxed Romney out of the race around this time last year? One imagines it would be quite fun to slap Bush like this to commemorate the anniversary. As far as his “personal prestige,” well, Romney’s been through worse and can deal.
The more interesting question is the risk a Romney endorsement this weekend poses for Rubio, the one who’s actually trying to win a presidential nomination. CNN reports that Rubio wants the endorsement before New Hampshire and is trying to convince Romney. But is the young man too rash in his solicitations?
Say Romney endorses Rubio but it’s not enough to close the New Hampshire gap, and Trump wins. Oh my God, can’t you hear it? Rubio brought in this loser, Romney, who choked in the last election, and what does he do, he chokes again. Choke, choke, choke—sad! We don’t need choking losers like Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, the boy.
There’s also a question of how overtly Rubio wants to be dubbed the “establishment candidate.” He would like the establishment to line up behind him in a series of senatorial and gubernatorial endorsements and large donations. But does he really need a move so heavy-handed as Romney, the previous Republican nominee, behind him before even the second state has had the chance to vote? If it looks too much like party leaders are trying to shove Rubio through the process this early on, this helps both Trump and Cruz as the contest moves through the South. They can each credibly argue that the party, after only two weeks of voting, has already begun writing the “amnesty bill” that they intend to put on Rubio’s Oval Office desk for signature.
The important thing for Rubio is that he doesn’t need Romney’s endorsement right now. The race is trending in his direction. He’s soon going to be flush with the donors and supporters of several candidates who drop out. Cruz is stalling, and Trump has little room to grow. The longer the campaign goes on, the more favorable the terrain is to him. If there’s a time when an avalanche of party actors should publicly come his way in an effort to wrap this thing up, it should be prior to Florida and the other winner-take-all states that come in mid-March. For now, there’s no need to tinker with something that’s already working.