Mitt Romney seemed to have it all - terrific executive experience in both the public and private sectors, millions he earned on his own and was willing to invest in his campaign, integrity, good looks and a beautiful family that backed him. He failed to win the Republican presidential nomination because of the one thing he lacked: trust.
But Romney's rivals should not gloat. The entire Republican party has forfeited the trust of its base and may pay dearly for that in November.
How can Republicans win in 2008? There are two models. The Karl Rove strategy that won in 2004 aimed at boosting Republican turnout. John Kerry won more votes than any Democrat in history, but George W. Bush won even more, thanks to conservative strongholds like our own Tri-state counties.
The alternative strategy proposed by supporters of John McCain is to run toward the center. McCain is a genuine war hero and (to the bewilderment of the mainstream media) he is revered by most conservatives for supporting not just the Iraq war but also a troop surge long before that was embraced by President Bush.
McCain has also endeared himself to the mainstream media by being a "maverick." By this they mean that he has broken with conservatives over tax cuts, border security, methods of interrogating suspected terrorists, First Amendment protection of political speech, the right to filibuster judicial nominees and a host of other issues.
The question is not whether McCain was right. It's whether he can win. George H.W. Bush wound up governing as a moderate ("Read my lips, no new taxes" and don't even ask about Supreme Court Justice David Souter) but Bush had won by running as the ideological successor of Ronald Reagan. By contrast, Bob Dole - a war hero, a senior congressional leader and a centrist darling of the mainstream media, just like John McCain - lost.
McCain is hoping Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. With her sky-high negatives among Republicans there is a chance her presence alone would turn out conservatives. Absent that, McCain always knew he'd have a tough time mending fences with those on the right.
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney. Why couldn't he become the conservative alternative? First, he lost some of the most committed conservatives because he is a Mormon, although I believe this factor has been exaggerated. Far more important, Romney became governor of Massachusetts and governed that liberal state as a moderate on many issues. Conservatives did not believe that the man who once promised to uphold a woman's right to an abortion turned pro-life because he was troubled by embryonic stem cell research. That explanation seemed to conservatives downright Clintonian.
Romney backers also blame Mike Huckabee, but I think that's unfair. The former Arkansas governor skyrocketed out of a crowded pack of candidates despite lacking name recognition and money. That his support comes largely from fellow evangelicals is nothing to be ashamed of and, in any event, since winning Iowa Huckabee has been splitting evangelicals with other candidates. More to the point, the claim by Romney boosters on talk radio that Huckabee siphoned off Romney voters is patently false. McCain has been demonized for weeks on talk radio. If conservatives wanted to defeat him, they knew that the man to back (after Thompson and Giuliani dropped out) was Romney, not Huckabee. But Romney still lost all the important primaries on Super Tuesday.
No, Huckabee was not Romney's undoing. It was the conservatives' lack of trust that Romney would stick to his campaign promises and not turn into George W. Bush on issues like spending, entitlements and immigration. And conservatives have even less confidence in congressional Republicans; that's why two years ago Republicans lost Congress.
So Romney is out and McCain seems certain to win the nomination. But conservatives may yet have the last, bitter laugh.