Mitt Romney under siege: can the GOP’s one-time frontrunner survive?

Poor Mitt Romney. He already had one big strike against him — his Mormonism — even before he contemplated his second run for the presidency. But thanks to the Tea Party, he’s also under serious fire for his 2006 Massachusetts health care plan, which his conservative critics liken to Obamacare — dubbing it “Romneycare” — since both plans mandate individual health coverage and expand the reach of Medicaid.

Romney has done his best not to repudiate one of his signature achievements as governor by suggesting that it’s just the kind of “state-based” solution uniquely tailored to local conditions that conservatives should support as an alternative to President Obama’s “federally mandated” plan. But no one’s actually buying that argument. Except, of course, Obama, and his close friend and political ally, current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who says Romney’s plan is working “brilliantly,” expanding affordable health coverage to nearly 98% of the state’s residents.

The White House, of course, knows a promising “divide-and-rule” strategy when it sees one. Under withering fire from conservatives — and with a majority of independents still opposed to Obamacare — it relishes the opportunity to cite the record of the presumptive GOP nominee as evidence that its own policies, notwithstanding Tea Party charges of “creeping socialism,” are broadly in tune with voter preferences, at least in a state that’s still — Scott Brown, notwithstanding — one of the bluest of the blue.

But as polls show, Romney’s clearly paying the price with conservatives. As the second-place finisher to John McCain in 2008, he’s the GOP’s heir apparent, but, by all appearances, he seems to be fading fast. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who gave McCain and Romney an unexpected run for their money in 2008, besting both in a handful of critical primaries, has been leading Romney in the polls for weeks. And that was before the party’s new gadfly, Donald Trump, entered the fray, pushing Romney to an increasingly distant third nationally, and even lower in some statewide polls.

Romney, from the beginning, has counted on first winning a commanding victory in New Hampshire, then, like the proverbial oil spot, slowly spreading his influence to other states. But last week, in addition to Trump’s surge, he suffered more bad news: his key 2008 New Hampshire political operative, Wally Stickney, has publicly defected to GOP long-shot Jon Huntsman, who’s not only the former governor of Utah and, like Romney, a Mormon, but also Obama’s ambassador to China. The son of a billionaire, Huntsman is perhaps the most moderate GOP candidate currently contemplating a presidential bid — fiscally conservative and broadly pro-life, but still close to Obama and moderate Democrats on issues like cap and trade, immigration, and gay marriage. In fact, he even supported the stimulus package, which is likely to cost him dearly with conservatives.

Still, Stickney’s defection to Huntsman suggests that a shift may be underway among a critical segment of New Hampshire primary voters, who are notoriously independent and unpredictable. McCain won New Hampshire in 2008, but thanks largely to Stickney, Romney did well in and around Salem, which allowed him to finish a close second, earning him GOP contender status. Huntsman, it turns out, is a close ally of McCain and even has friendly ties to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Huntsman was Utah’s governor when Palin was Alaska’s — both had stellar political records while in office — and it was Huntsman who gave the GOP convention speech formally nominating Palin as McCain’s running mate in 2008.