About five minutes before Mitt Romney strode onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., text messages started flying around the room. Romney was dropping out.
Laura Ingraham was introducing Romney, but it sure sounded like she hadn’t been fully briefed. It gave her whole surly, cocky shtick a morbid overtone, and the knowledge gap produced some cringeworthy moments. "I don’t think any of us in this room think another Ronald Reagan is going to walk through the door," she said. Indeed not.
Romney arrived already looking deflated. The crowd cheered, but as he spoke, there was a disconnect between audience expectations and his words. He started out by describing John McCain’s lead: "Eleven states have given me their nod, compared to his 13. Of course, because size does matter, he’s doing quite a bit better with his number of delegates."
The audience waited for a "but." But there was no but.
He didn’t exactly endorse John McCain but said he agrees with the senator on the war and national security. "If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win," he said.
It took a second to sink in. A man from the audience screamed, "Nooooo!" Boos followed. Romney’s eyes looked moist—I’m sure we’ll hear that he cried—and his voice seemed to tighten.
"This is not an easy decision for me. I hate to lose," he said. "… If this were only about me, I would go on. But I entered this race because I love America, and because I love America, I feel I must now stand aside, for our party and for our country." Again, boos.
It’s a curious rationale for ducking out. He’s essentially saying that a tough Republican race helps the Democrats, which in turn helps the terrorists: "I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror." (Does that mean a Romney win would have been a win for terrorists?) Whereas John Edwards dropped out to "let history blaze its path," Romney is dropping out to let McCain beat Obama and catch Osama.
The fact is, Romney realized he was beaten on the board. Mathematically, he had to win nearly every other primary in order to beat McCain. And every contest lost would be another blow to his integrity and thus the likelihood of another run. Plus, by the time he was done, he would have spent so much of his own money—$18 million and counting—that he might have to change his tune on entitlement programs.
When he left the stage, the crowd filed out in a daze. Romney signs dangled at the sides of supporters, rather than being held aloft. A Ron Paul supporter gleefully pointed out how his candidate outlived Romney, only to be stared down by Romney-ites.
Someone pointed, and I looked over. There was Flip the Dolphin—the stuffed-animal man who has been following Romney everywhere—doing a jig.