A year before Republicans pick a 2012 candidate, their presidential outlook remains muddled. Nothing exemplifies their dilemma more than the all-but-certain candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
By traditional standards, he should be the GOP front-runner. He was the 2008 runner-up, is personally attractive and professionally successful and can mount a well-financed, professional campaign. But he doesn't even have clear support within the party's mainstream wing, let alone the increasingly influential tea party faction.
His problems were evident from what he said — and didn't say — when he joined other hopefuls in wooing activists at last week's annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
Romney was relatively well-received, thanks in part to his organization's success in mobilizing his backers. He finished second again in the presidential straw poll, showing support in a crowd that's not his natural constituency.
But his speech was heavy on crowd-pleasing anti-Obama one-liners and weak on substance. It failed to stir the spontaneous enthusiasm that greeted such speakers as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and, to everyone's surprise, the New York real estate entrepreneur turned reality-show host, Donald Trump.
Romney began with some curious commentary on Obama's State of the Union speech, chiding the president for a failed effort to redefine himself and present "a new and improved Barack Obama."
What's odd is that raised one of Romney's greatest handicaps, his efforts to redefine himself over the years. A moderate pro-gay-rights candidate when he challenged Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994 who said he'd protect "a woman's right to choose" in 2002, Romney now sounds like most GOP conservatives.
He condemned liberal policies that "failed to protect the unborn" in a speech replete with conservative catch phrases like "America is an exceptional nation" and belief in the Constitution "as it was written and intended by the founders."
He failed to mention the ongoing revolution in Egypt, lest any pro-democracy comments anger conservatives stressing stability, and touched only tangentially on the issue that is a top GOP target — and his Achilles heel — health care.
The reason, of course, is that Obama's health care law, which Republicans abhor, resembles the law Romney passed in Massachusetts. Both require everyone to purchase health insurance.
Ironically, the failure of other states to match Romney's achievement made national health legislation more necessary. But Republican rivals are likely to give him substantial grief over the issue.
His changing political persona and vulnerability on health care are two reasons many Republicans have doubts about Romney, who failed in 2008 to show the popular appeal needed to win the nomination. Indeed, he seemed in Iowa and New Hampshire to fare less well the more voters got to know him.
One reason for Romney's crucial role at this stage is the contrast with the party's more conservative wing, where the ultimate pecking order depends heavily on whether Sarah Palin runs, a decision unlikely to come soon.
But the shape of the establishment field may hinge in part on whether potential rivals believe Romney can go all the way in what looks like an uphill race against Obama.
Of course, Romney's potential mainstream rivals have their own problems. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, perhaps the most charismatic and politically astute of them, carries more baggage than a Boeing 747, between his lobbyist past, image as a old-style white Southerner at a time of growing national diversity and comments on the South's racist past showing him as out of touch with reality as Hosni Mubarak seemed in Egypt.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gave CPAC's most substantive and challenging speech, calling efforts to eliminate earmarks "a trifle" and saying focusing on them and "'waste, fraud and abuse' trivializes what needs to be done." But he has angered some social conservatives by down-playing their issues, and he lacks the charisma of Palin or Bachmann, not to mention Obama.
Two other potentially appealing candidates, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, say they won't run.
In that field, Romney's support in the crucial first primary state of New Hampshire, assuming he can maintain it, could help him become at least a GOP finalist and, absent a clear conservative alternative, a possible nominee.
But so many Republicans would not be seeking an alternative if they had greater confidence he was a true frontrunner and potential 2012 winner.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: email@example.com.