Why Romney is stronger than he seems

former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to supporters during his primary night gathering at The Grain Exchange on April 3 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Story highlights

  • Timothy Stanley: Republicans are reconciling themselves to Romney as a nominee
  • He says the former governor has strengths that could help him this year, including money
  • The likely focus on the economy as an issue, he says, could bolster Romney's candidacy
  • Stanley: Romney proved in the Massachusetts election that he could appeal to the center

As the Rolling Stones sang, "You can't always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes you just might find/ You get what you need." That's what many Republicans are doing as they slowly reconcile themselves to the candidacy of Mitt Romney.

He doesn't make the red heart soar in the way that Ronald Reagan did. But that doesn't mean Mitt isn't the right presidential nominee for 2012. On the contrary, Romney is arguably as suited to this election season as Reagan was to 1980.

Mitt has his problems. His primary vote has often been concentrated among seniors who earn more than $100,000 per year. In order to win in November, he needs to draw more support from two very different groups of voters: Santorum-voting tea party conservatives and independent women. As a result, Romney's general election strategy is awkwardly bifurcated. He needs simultaneously to motivate the Right and reach out to the Center. He has to channel Ann Coulter and Oprah all at once.

That paradox is perhaps one of the reasons why Mitt has sometimes come off as a shallow candidate who pretends to like everything, everywhere, all of the time (and then some). Recall him telling the citizens of Michigan that he loved their trees because they "are the right height?"

This tendency to pander has dimmed Republican interest in the race and Romney could face a turnout problem in November that will see Republican voters swamped by enthusiastic Democrats, particularly Latinos. Goodbye Ohio, farewell Florida.

Timothy Stanley

All of this is pretty grim, but no reason that Romney should quit the race and move to the Cayman Islands to spend more time with his money. On the contrary, Mitt has some hidden advantages.

The first is the volatility of American elections. In March 1980, President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by 25 percent in some polls. Reagan went onto win the November election by 51 to 41 percent. In June 1992, Bill Clinton was running third in opinion polls. Ross Perot had 39 percent, President George HW Bush 31 percent, and Clinton just 25 percent. Clinton went onto win the November election by 43 percent to Bush's 39 percent.

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All of these candidacies rose and fell on the tide of historical events (the hostage crisis in 1980, recession in 1992), and we just can't predict what will happen in 2012. What we can say is that the Romney campaign has shown an ability to survive crises.

One thing that has helped is the candidate's fundraising prowess. Romney was able to outspend Santorum 5-to-1 in some primaries, and his people are experts at going negative -- that's what turned things around in the key primaries of Florida and Illinois. So far, most of Mitt's cash has been focused on trashing other Republican candidates.

When he turns his money machine on the president in battleground states, expect to see a shift in the polls. Romney can enjoy funding from several quarters: his own stash, his wildly successful super PAC, the Republican National Committee and, crucially, lots of independent groups whose hatred for Obama knows no limits.

It's interesting to note that the White House recently had to scramble response ads to those run by the group American Energy Reliance, which has spent $3 million telling voters that the president is killing the recovery. Groups like the AER will rally behind Romney in November because they recognize that anything less than 100 percent commitment to the Republican ticket would be tantamount to giving Obama four more years. No right-wingers want that on their conscience.

And even if they don't love him, conservatives recognize that Romney is the man best placed to beat Obama. He proved his ability to appeal beyond the Republican base in 2002, when he won the Massachusetts governorship by bringing out large numbers of conservatives, running even in working-class districts, and holding down the Democratic vote in urban areas. His trick was to make the case for his fiscal conservatism while also reassuring centrists that he wasn't an ideologue.

Romney's personality is appropriate to the task because it's so smooth and calming. It defies the stereotypes of button-pressing, Bible-thumping, government-hating conservatives, even as Romney exploits those issues in his rhetoric. That's Mitt's genius: even as he moves further to the right, moderate voters still believe he is one of them. His image is perfectly suited to the suburbs, something that has been a problem in the primaries but will be a bonus in the general election when he has to compete in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Best of all, Romney is the quintessential "it's the economy stupid" candidate. If there's one thing the public knows about him, thanks to his opponents, it's that Mitt understands how to run a business and make money. That puts him ahead on the two issues that really count: reducing the deficit and increasing employment.

If 2012 comes down to competence, then it favors the reputation of Mitt Romney. After four years of soaring deficits and stubbornly high unemployment, many voters are starting to ask if they need a bit of white-collar ruthlessness to turn the country around. That's why, despite all Mitt's problems in the primaries, Obama's lead over him has remained narrow. In the past two months, it has fluctuated from 2 to 11 percentage points, averaging out at 4.7 -- just about the polls' margin of error. If Romney really is the electoral dead duck that his Republican rivals claim he is, why isn't Obama beating him by double digits?

Too many conservatives coming off the energy of the 2010 midterm race presumed that the 2012 election would be equally electric. That's why they've been slow to coalesce around a more boring, rational candidate like Mitt Romney. But a Republican victory in 2012 won't be a tea party revolution; it'll be a return to normalcy.

It will be about turning the clock back to a time before Obama, maybe even before Bush, when government was a little smaller and not so intent on churning out wars and expensive programmes. Republicans are very good at finding the right sort of man to win such elections: Warren Harding in 1920, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1968. Often those candidates have not been the first choice of their party. But the nation, looking for peace and calm after a period of turmoil, has accepted the cool logic of their candidacy. In the same spirit, Romney is the best man for 2012.

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