Who Should Mitt Want To Beat?

My post over at the Washington Post recently is about how swimmingly everything is breaking for Mitt Romney right now. Of course, there’s still a long way to go to Iowa…plenty of time for someone to break out and wind up in the top three. And I disagree with something that Dave Weigel said earlier this week — that a Ron Paul win, if it happens, will be the major story. No, I think that a Paul win would be heavily discounted by the press because they don’t think he can win the nomination, and because the polling already has him on top so it wouldn’t have surprise news value, and because high-visibility Republicans would probably play it down.

At least, that would be the case if they have something else to talk about. And the big something else would be someone other than Romney, Paul, and Newt breaking into the top three.

So: who should Romney be rooting for to finish third in Iowa? In the Plum Line post, I made my usual case that what really matters is whether Rick Perry rallies, but outside of that, what should Romney want?

Quick answer: not Rick Santorum. Michele Bachmann would be great; just as with Newt, she’s an easy target and Romney would have lots of help. But Santorum would be a little trickier. He mostly has mainstream conservative positions on issues, and isn’t obviously vulnerable on personal baggage, and so Romney would have to keep to the right in order to defeat him. Now, that probably wouldn’t be especially hard, but it might delay his general election shift to the center and leave him with some positions on public policy he would rather not defend in the fall.

So the best bets for Romney are either that Newt hangs on for a weak third, or that Bachmann passes him. Which is pretty much what Nate Silver’s numbers show right now. Too bad for Romney that there’s still plenty of time for things to change.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.