Mitt Romney is grinding his way to the Republican presidential nomination not by winning hearts but by imposing his will on a party that keeps resisting him. He is assembling the peripheral elements of the GOP as his rivals divide the votes of the passionate believers. His campaign is part John McCain, part Michael Dukakis, and part Richard Nixon.
In its way, Romney's achievement is impressive. He is neither a natural politician nor a comfortable spokesman for an increasingly ideological, evangelical, Southern and enraged political coalition. Romney is a man of flexible views from the Northeast, a Mormon who wins votes from the least religious sectors of his party, a rather satisfied man who has to announce he's angry because he doesn't look it.
Yet whenever it has mattered, Romney has pulled out victories. They are never won in a pretty way and require millions of dollars in advertising to discredit his opponents. They have also forced Romney to adjust or reverse many of his positions, and to go far to the right on particular issues -- immigration for one -- to outflank his adversaries. He needs to win now. He'll count the costs later.
Romney has been willing to mislead voters if necessary. He pretends, for example, that he never said that his Massachusetts health plan was a model for the nation when he plainly did exactly that in a 2009 op-ed. Romney wrote: "Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages 'free riders' to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others." Welcome to the insurance "mandate" of "Obamacare."
On top of that, he wants conservatives to forget his 2002 declaration (when he was running for governor of Massachusetts) that "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard." His "word" applied to one race in one state.
Romney has managed to live all this down because of the shortcomings of his more conservative opponents, and because Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich continue to split the Republican right. Between them, Santorum and Gingrich secured 52 percent of the vote in Ohio to Romney's 38 percent. But Romney's share was just enough, because Gingrich siphoned off nearly a third of that 52 percent.
Santorum thumped Romney, 48 percent to 30 percent, among Ohio voters who called themselves "very conservative." Gingrich got 15 percent of them, preventing Santorum from consolidating what should have been his base.
In the meantime, Romney racked up the remaining votes he needed in the more moderate remnant of his party. Ohio Republicans who said their views on social issues were moderate or liberal backed Romney over Santorum by 45 percent to 26 percent. Romney won a similar margin, 43 percent to 31 percent, with the minority of GOP voters who said the religious views of their candidate mattered "not much" or "not at all." One reason Romney lost to Santorum in Tennessee and Oklahoma: The proportion of voters in those states pronouncing themselves indifferent to a candidate's religious outlook was smaller than it was in Ohio.
Here is where Romney's experience closely follows McCain's in 2008. McCain secured the GOP nomination in large part because three candidates running to his right (Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and, ironically, Romney himself) split the conservative vote, allowing McCain to win narrow primary victories in states -- notably South Carolina -- that he would have lost had he confronted a unified right. And like Dukakis, a fellow Massachusetts governor who won the 1988 Democratic nomination, Romney is the survivor, the man left standing after others had fallen away, self-destructed, or skipped the contest altogether.
But it is Nixon, rival to Romney's father in 1968, who provides the words that may best explain how Mitt Romney is managing his way toward a tepid triumph. Recall that Nixon's political resurrection came after a period of great ideological enthusiasm on the Republican right that led to Barry Goldwater's historically significant but electorally disastrous nomination in 1964. Nixon knew he needed the right wing but had no illusions about how its loyalists felt about him.
"They don't like me," Nixon said, "but they tolerate me."
That is the best Romney is likely to do with the Tea Partyers and the Christian conservatives and the Southerners who don't cotton to formerly moderate private equity guys from New England. But as it was for Nixon, this may be enough.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).