Has ever a politician gone so cheerfully into defeat as Mitt Romney? Remember Romney around the time of the Michigan and Florida GOP primaries: As he derided John McCain's economic policies as defeatist and lashed out at the senator for dishonestly distorting his rhetoric on Iraq, Romney appeared to be a man barely in control of an immense, quivering, anti-McCain outrage. (McCain repaid him by comparing him to a pig.)
But it took only a week after admitting defeat at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early February for Romney to declare that, "in the thick of the fight, it's easy to lose sight of your opponent's finer qualities. But the truth of the matter is that, in the case of Senator McCain, I could never quite do that."
And he didn't stop at a mere endorsement. He hit the road with McCain in Utah and Colorado, posed guffawing with him while snacking on turkey sandwiches in the back of McCain's plane, pledged to raise him $15 million (more than McCain currently has in the bank), and gushed, and gushed, and gushed. In the course of telling Sean Hannity last month that he would be "honored" to be McCain's vice president, Romney opined that, "when it comes to national security, John McCain is the big dog, and each of them [Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama] are the Chihuahua."
Like China's Last Emperor happily agreeing to reign over a puppet state in Manchuria after the Japanese invaded, Romney is presiding over various local--and less desirable--Republican events on McCain's behalf: a county Republican dinner in Amish country, Pennsylvania; the Nevada GOP convention (which was hijacked by Ron Paul supporters); and, last weekend, the Maine GOP convention at the vaguely decrepit Civic Center in Augusta. There, a press avail in a remote upstairs corner of the convention hall yields the last, shrunken fruits of the Romney campaign's publicity harvest: among them one TV camera; a bored-to-the-point-of-angry-looking Associated Press drudge wearing a dirty t-shirt and four days' stubble; and a freelance film critic in owlish glasses who declares that his "passion is for the cinema." "Governor," the film critic asks, "is there a favorite political movie of yours that you think gets at the intersection of things political and things artistic?"
Romney stalls, beaming a smile out from under a fresh coffee-brown tan. "Certain movies have had an influence. ... The Manchurian Candidate ..." Finally, the gears deliver up the only thing on the mental production line these days: a way to praise John McCain. "That movie with Robert Redford, The Candidate," Romney finishes. "Where he is over-promoted and over-packaged, and that's quite frightening. That's what we won't get with John McCain. Nobody has a question whether John McCain is the real deal."
There is a damp, awkward pause. It's as though Romney has acknowledged his own deepest failing: He was overpromoted and over-packaged and, frankly, it sometimes was quite frightening. It could be a sad moment, except that Romney grins sunnily and swivels to bat the next question. Anything, nowadays, to help the big dog.
To hear Romney aides describe it, the core members of Team Mitt were as thrilled to hop aboard the McCain ship as their leader was. When they gathered at headquarters in Boston on the Thursday after Romney dropped out, there were "zero dissenters," relates one former Romney adviser. "We all agreed we had to do a formal endorsement." So campaign manager Beth Myers called McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and told him Romney was McCain's for the taking. "'Anytime, anywhere, Mitt'll do it--or not!'" the adviser recalls Myers as saying. McCain happened to be in Rhode Island that day, so Davis just pointed the Straight Talk Express north and got the thing done that very afternoon.
Soon after, top Romney backer Meg Whitman signed up to co-chair McCain's campaign and Romney dispatched finance man Spencer Zwick, the 29-year-old wunderkind Romney calls his "sixth son," to be a liaison between McCain's and Romney's money people. In the weeks after the endorsement, some Romney backers even took pleasure in the way McCain, whom the papers had reported disliked Romney, appeared to warm up to him. "Mitt has got a great sense of humor. I think it surprised McCain," says another Romney associate, sounding more like a proud parent than a seasoned campaign hand.
Resistance still simmers in outer provinces of the old Romney empire. "I think the burden is on the McCain campaign to reach out and harvest [the Romney] enthusiasm," warns Mark DeMoss, a conservative Romney fund-raiser who hasn't yet contributed to McCain--and who says he knows Romney fund-raisers who categorically won't open their wallets unless Mitt is added to the ticket. "It would be a huge mistake to take us for granted," he says.
Other Romney fund-raisers are griping that team McCain hasn't seemed that interested in them. Mitt's biggest fund-raiser, L.A. investor Tom Tellefsen, told the Los Angeles Times in April that the McCain campaign had not attempted to make any communication with him at all. And, in the end, there will be a structural limit to what Romney can offer McCain, at least financially. Romney, like Mike Huckabee and Obama, cultivated a set of hardcore supporters who hadn't dabbled much in politics before, and some of them only have eyes for Mitt. "Mitt-world," the former Romney adviser explains, comprised several distinct groups. "There's the old Michigan money. The Harvard group. The business folks. ... The Olympics people. Being the governor of Massachusetts got him a lot of donors. Lastly, the Mormon thing. He had layers to Mitt-world, a lot of them very unique."
Perhaps sensing its toadying-tousefulness ratio was not in appropriate proportion--the blogs had a field day with the "big dog" thing--the Romney camp now seems to be backpedaling. The $15 million he promised McCain? "I don't know how much it will be," Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, tells me, pivoting, "not only are we raising money for McCain, but also for the [Republican National Committee's] Victory Committee." The vice-presidential hopes? "He's not applying for the job, he's not campaigning for it," says Fehrnstrom, stressing the governor's excitement about starting a PAC to help all Republican candidates. The message: I'm not personally ambitious, I'm just the quintessential loyal party man. When a reporter at the Augusta Civic Center asked Romney whether he would like to be McCain's v.p., Romney chuckled, "I don't think that's very likely."
Saying it's not likely, of course, is a highly choreographed step in the runningmate dance. And denying that Mitt Romney would like to be vice president is like pretending the boy who filled the girl's car with 700 roses during prom season just did it because he happens to be a nice guy.
But, ironically, it could be Romney's extreme enthusiasm that inoculates him against disappointment or bitterness if he isn't chosen. That's because Romney has plenty of ambition, but apparently none of that trait that normally goes with it: pride. It's not hard to imagine him carrying on in the same fashion even if rejected, trekking to Nevada and Maine and refashioning questions about film into odes to McCain's authenticity. It's the peculiar dutifulness of the Romney ethos at work, exhibited first in his willingness to take any position to please the base, then in his chipper eagerness to endorse, and now in the race for v.p.: Anytime, anywhere, Mitt'll do it--or not.
Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic.