If you watch football you know about players who lose their concentration on the ball because they're "hearing footsteps."
What they are hearing is the real or imagined approach of an opponent — or lots of them. Right now, Mitt Romney has got to be hearing something similar. In his case, it's the rattle of tea cups — lots of them.
The Tea Party movement means many things to different people, but it means one thing to Mr. Romney. It means the Republican riptide he reasonably expected to ride in 2012 is rushing past him instead, lifting other vessels quite different from his own.
This weekend we saw one more sign of Romney's being out-of-synch with the current anti-establishment mood on the right. Romney was a featured speaker at the Values Voter Summit that meets annually in Washington. His speech was a masterpiece of devotion to the conservative cause, especially on social issues.
The next day, the VVS organizers conducted a straw poll. Romney did not do that badly in terms of the standings, finishing third. But it was not an impressive third: only 13% of the ballots came his way. He finished behind two Mikes, one of whom he battled in 2008 and one of whom might well join the Republican fray in Iowa in the months ahead.
Finishing first was Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a member of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House. Now, Congress is just about the least liked institution in America, and the Republicans are actually the less popular party (you can look it up). But at the VVS, where the emphasis is on the moral dimension, Pence's earnest, sermonic style seemed right at home. So did the pulpit-practiced rhythms of that other Mike, the Rev. Huckabee, who gave Romney fits in 2008 by winning the Iowa caucuses.
In the end, Romney barely beat Newt Gingrich. A powerful figure in American politics 15 years ago, Gingrich today clings to name recognition because people who book political shows on TV cannot kick the habit of calling him and goading him to say outrageous things — as they know he will.
Sarah Palin, presumed to be far more a champion of social conservatives than Romney or Gingrich, trailed both at the VVS. Palin, who addressed a Reagan dinner in Iowa the night before — and did not speak at the VVS — wound up with just one vote in 14. There may be something to contemplate in that outcome.
Is it possible Palin is not so much the favorite of the religious right as she is the darling of the reputedly godless media, where generating audience by any means is what matters?
Straw polls are notoriously poor predictors of presidential nominations. If such soundings among activists were better indicators, we might have heard more from Alan Cranston in 1984 or Pat Robertson in 1988 or Pat Buchanan in 1992 or Phil Gramm in 1996. (And you are not alone if you are amazed that any of those people were once regarded as serious candidates for president.)
Through most of the past year it has seemed to many of us that Mitt Romney was the candidate to beat for the GOP nomination for president. Not only does he have all the assets he had in 2008, he has also been making all the right moves ever since — not the least of which is keeping out of sight for long stretches at a time.
Let the noisy world rage, Romney seemed to say. Sooner or later, the hierarchical and sensible side of the good gray GOP gets around to nominating its most logical choice. And Romney knew that was him.
Romney is the former businessman and Massachusetts governor who mounted the single most formidable and credible challenge to Sen. John McCain's nomination for president in 2008 in every respect but one. He could not control the gang of rivals running to McCain's right. In the end, the cacophony of econo-cons, socio-cons and neo-cons divvied up most of the primary votes and let McCain win one event after another with minor-fraction pluralities. The party's winner-take-all rules then forced each of his rivals to the sidelines, including Romney.
By dropping out when he did, Romney put down a marker for 2012 that looked very much like the marker to beat. After all, the GOP has nominated its heir apparent in every cycle since the 1960s.
Until now. The man who has done everything right and positioned himself perfectly for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is suddenly seeming out of step and eclipsed by a movement.
If Romney's peril sounds familiar, it may be because it parallels what happened to the last person who was perfectly positioned to benefit from a big momentum shift in national politics: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A few short years ago at this time, Sen. Clinton had it all before her. She led in every national poll for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and she led in nearly every state. She had the backing of the party establishment, and even many African Americans preferred her to the upstart newbie from Illinois with the funny name.
Hillary Clinton had done everything she needed to do. She had won a Senate seat in her own right in 2000 and scored an overwhelming re-election triumph in 2006. She had assembled a staff of veteran operatives from the Clinton campaigns of the 1990s. She had also amassed a record as a solid but not lockstep vote for Democratic issues and causes, while maintaining a centrist element that would enable her to tack back to the middle for the general election's fall campaign.
True, that last element had required her to vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. That vote would come to be seen as a pro-war vote, and it would come to be the kernel of contrast between her and Barack Obama. It seemed no more than a mustard seed at the time, the kind of thing that cost you in straw polls but not in real primaries in big states like California, Texas, New York and Florida.
But underestimating the power of activists, even small numbers of them in places like Idaho and Nebraska and Kansas, ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the nomination she once assumed was hers. And so the big shift of voter sentiment away from the party of George W. Bush wound up electing another Democratic president, instead.
So in this presidential cycle, we are all paying more attention to the populists. Maybe too much attention. But then, if you are Mitt Romney, can you ignore the lesson Hillary learned so bitterly?
And here, for the record are the full results of that mini-plebiscite at the VVS on Saturday as released by the sponsor, the Family Research Council. All are Republicans:
1. Pence (24%)
2. Huckabee (22%)
3. Romney (13%)
4. Gingrich (10%)
5. Palin (7%)
6. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (5%)
7. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (5%)
8. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (2%)
9. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (2%)
10. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (2%)
11. South Dakota Sen. John Thune (2%)
12. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (1%)
13. Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio (1%)
14. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (1%)
15. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (1%)
16. Texas Rep. Ron Paul (1%)
17. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (1%)