HE WAS NO ATHLETE, but the teenage Mitt Romney joined the race anyway. A student at the Cranbrook School, a prep academy in suburban Detroit, he laced up for a 2.5-mile run with the cross-country team at halftime of a football game. By the beginning of the game’s second half, everyone had finished. Everyone but young Mitt.
His crucial error had been starting too fast. Woefully unprepared for the distance, he cramped up and had to crawl across the finish line. But the experience, according to schoolmate Gregg Dearth, taught Romney something important: “To pace yourself and to run the whole race and to temper your enthusiasm with judgment.”
A half century later, the lesson still holds as Romney struggles to outdistance his Republican rivals. For weeks now, with capricious voters swinging from candidate to candidate, everyone’s been asking the same question: Why can’t Romney just win this thing?
He is, after all, the favorite of the Republican establishment. He’s the most presidential in bearing. And he’s the one most capable of peeling centrist voters away from President Obama in November. And yet here he is battling for states like his native Michigan — Michigan!
One of Romney’s problems, of course, is his difficulty connecting with people, a liability he has only magnified with tone-deaf comments. Surely you’ve heard them: casually betting former rival Rick Perry $10,000; how he likes to fire people; and saying his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.” (Because nothing endears you to the 99 percent like owning a fleet of Caddies.)
But while these missteps have been damaging, and perhaps revealing, let’s remember what Romney is good at and what he isn’t. The fact is, he was never going to quickly sew up the Republican nomination on charisma. He was never going to fill arenas with thousands of wet-eyed adorers. He was never going to capture hearts with folksy politicking. When we talk about political candidates catching fire, we’re never talking about Mitt Romney.
And yet: If anyone’s well suited to emerge the victor in a slog for Republican delegates, it’s Romney, the relentlessly strategic data geek, the guy who knows what matters most is long-term growth. Like a seasoned investor, he doesn’t appear overly worried about the setbacks, making light of them even while acknowledging they’ve been a drag on his candidacy. He rides the market’s ups and downs, hoping the dividend, in the end, renders all the transitory fluctuations meaningless.
Romney looked past his thumping in South Carolina to capture an important victory in Florida. Then, when his momentum stalled after a couple of stinging defeats, he proved resilient by posting victories in Michigan, barely, and Arizona. Going forward, Romney should have the money, campaign know-how, and organizational might to continue chasing down the 1,144 delegates necessary to secure the GOP nomination.
To be sure, Romney’s durability will still be tested. Voter sentiment, like economic confidence, can shift quickly. What’s more, Romney’s lackluster 2008 campaign showed the limits of strategic thinking. But you can bet that he and his 2012 team know the arcane rules of delegate-tallying better than anyone and that they’re the best prepared to hit their target.
Steady, patient delegate-collection may not make for a compelling political narrative, especially alongside the incendiary rhetoric of Newt Gingrich or the anti-establishment libertarianism of Ron Paul or the unabashedly faith-based message of Rick Santorum. But, as Romney said recently, “I just am who I am.” He’s the tortoise looking at the whole race. And this time he might just cross the finish line first.Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer and coauthor of The Real Romney. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.