How does Mitt Romney remain atop the Republican field? He’s unpopular with fiscal conservatives. Despite his business-friendly reputation, conservatives perceive Romney as a statist wolf in free-market clothing; a classic northeastern moderate if not an outright liberal. He fares even worse with social conservatives. Even with his reformed positions on abortion and marriage, his checkered history on both issues breeds distrust among Republicans. 

Since key elements of the GOP base are aligned against Romney there is opportunity for a reliable conservative with stamina for the long haul. Thus far no one has fit the bill.

Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry launched their campaigns with a flourish only to disappear like ice on an August sidewalk. Herman Cain briefly overtook Romney until the “9-9-9 Train” derailed amid a concocted sex scandal or Cain’s own wandering eye, whichever you prefer to believe. The sometimes Reaganesque Newt Gingrich has more lives than a cat. But political and personal baggage has rendered him thoroughly inconsistent. Newt’s campaign charged Iowa with swelling poll numbers, fell flat, and limped toward New Hampshire. He’s ascending again, and yet another personal storm looms on the horizon. Rick Santorum, it turns out, won Iowa. However, the social conservative champion lags woefully behind Romney in ultraconservative South Carolina. Only Ron Paul has managed consistent numbers relative to Romney’s. But Paul’s polling numbers don’t suggest he can overtake Mitt.

Each Republican challenger has charged the Romney beast and each has limped away licking their wounds. Why? You might point to pro-Romney attack ads or recite the media talking point about Romney being the only electable Republican. Another factor is Romney’s universal support among the GOP establishment. But there’s another reason Mitt Romney gained and maintains his apparent advantage, a reason having as much to do with his opponents as with him.

Romney’s competition treats him like the favorite therefore he is the favorite. Each candidate is so determined to be the anti-Romney that their own message is being lost in the shuffle. Republicans are wasting their time, and ours, in labeling Mitt as an unreliable conservative; conservatives already see Mitt in that light.

In contrast, Romney behaves like a frontrunner. He portrays himself as the anti-Obama, as a candidate who has moved beyond his Republican challengers. Romney’s camp realizes that a majority of the Republican base defines a successful 2012 as sending Obama home in time for the White Sox’s 2013 home opener. While Romney capitalizes on the desire to defeat Obama the rest of the candidates are focused on beating him.

Republican candidates must develop a message other than “I’m not Romney” if they’re to affect the race. With each solid primary finish, whether or not it’s a victory, Romney solidifies his status as the nominee-in-waiting. Thus the odds increase that the Republican Party will counter Obama with a candidate in the vein of McCain, Bush, and Dole. Regardless of November’s result, the ensuing four years could prove wholly unsatisfying.