How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mitt Romney?

| Wed Jan. 4, 2012 1:54 PM EST

Mitt Romney has a win in Iowa under his belt and is now headed to the friendlier environs of New Hampshire, where he's got a good chance of all but wrapping up the Republican nomination. Turns out, though, that this poses a problem for the Obama campaign: they aren't sure yet how best to trash the guy:

President Obama and his campaign aides are facing a conundrum as they decide how to tarnish the man they see as their likely opponent in the battle ahead.

Do they go the flip-flopper route? Or do they go the out-of-touch, protector-of-Wall-Street route? 

Hmmm. Today's shiny new conventional wisdom is that the GOP primary campaign has already forced Romney so far to the right that he'll have trouble tacking to the center for the general election. This is nonsense. The fact is that Romney has reserved almost all of his most extreme rhetoric for laughably over-the-top denunciations of Barack Obama, and that's not really a problem for him. By contrast, most of his issue positions have remained relatively tolerable. The truth is that Romney is unusually well positioned to moderate his image by summer, which is when people actually start paying attention.

I don't think the Republican primary season is going to last nearly as long as most people seem to think. Bachmann has already dropped out, Huntsman is going nowhere, Paul is a novelty candidate, Perry is fatally wounded and may leave the race soon, and Gingrich looks all set to self-destruct in typically bitter, spectacular fashion. That leaves Santorum. I guess it's barely possible that if, say, Bachmann and Perry both drop out and endorse Santorum, he might give Romney a good run. But I doubt it. Santorum is just like all the others: a weak candidate who's going to wilt as soon as the spotlight is on him. He's avoided serious attacks so far simply because no one really took him seriously, but does anyone doubt that there's a huge trainload of highly effective negative advertising that Romney can unload on him whenever he wants to? I mean, come on. This is Rick Santorum.

I'll be surprised if the GOP primary race goes much beyond the end of February, and I'll be shocked if Super Tuesday on March 6 doesn't end it completely. This means that the Republican base will have six months to resign themselves to their fate and come to the conclusion that Romney is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being ever to run for president. And they will. When Job 1 is beating the anti-Christ, learning to love Mitt Romney will be a piece of cake.

So what does this mean for Team Obama? My guess: the flip-flopper charge probably won't get much traction. It's mostly a problem for conservatives, who don't fully trust that Romney is one of them, but by the time summer rolls around they're going to be his most fire-breathing supporters. They'll have long since decided to forgive and forget, and independents won't care that much in the first place as long as Romney seems halfway reasonable in his current incarnation. It's possible that Obama can do both — Romney is a flip-flopper and a right-wing nutcase! — but if he has to choose, my guess is that he should forget about the flip-flopping and simply do everything he can to force Romney into the wingnut conservative camp. That'll be his big weakness when Labor Day rolls around.