Image: Mitt Romney
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks with local residents and students, Friday, Nov. 30, 2007, at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 12/5/2007 3:13:55 PM ET 2007-12-05T20:13:55

No, this is not another piece about Mitt Romney and his religion.

His speech on Thursday will be a turning point for the campaign, but not because religion is the candidate’s biggest hurdle.

In fact, his faith may be the least of Romney’s problems.

Because the chattering press class and political elite got it so wrong with Howard Dean four years ago, his name is invoked all too often. It is used as an example of why folks shouldn't take Clinton's or Giuliani's national poll lead so seriously. Or why no one should assume Romney's or Obama's financial resources and early state gains are guarantees of future success.

After all, four years ago at this time Dean was seeing momentum go his way both in polling (although his lead was not big in any national or state survey) and money (astonishing numbers at the time).

I pity the first of the top tier who gets chased out with the "Dean" tag, since being "Dean" appears to be synonymous with having support that's a mile wide but only an inch deep.

Which brings me to Romney.

Plan B
It's not an exaggeration to say that every major candidate is at a cross roads, but Romney is a special case. More than any other major candidate, his path to the nomination is tied to an early state strategy.  Even Clinton and Obama seem to be attempting to come up with a Plan B if they don't sweep in the first two states.

So what is Romney’s Plan B? Lose Iowa and win New Hampshire? Well, then he can live to campaign another day. Michigan comes a week later and it’s a state he should do well in.

But lose both Iowa and New Hampshire? Suddenly his chances plummet.

That’s why Dean isn't the analogy folks should use if Romney's campaign doesn't succeed. For Romney, the dubious comparative could be Phil Gramm.

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Gramm is the former Texas senator who wowed the Republican establishment in '95-96 with his great fundraising. He used that money to build what some thought would be a juggernaut organization in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.

But the minute the spotlight came on, he melted and ended up out of the race by Iowa, after getting embarrassed by Pat Buchanan in the little-regarded Louisiana caucuses.

Video: Romney's faith a challenge To be fair, Romney is no Phil Gramm in the visual department (sorry Phil). In fact, one of Romney's greatest strengths is that he looks the part of a president (almost too much so).

'Too perfect'?
It’s something Romney’s opponents seem to enjoy using to attack him. Claims that he is trying to be “too perfect” is code for trying to be “too correct” when it comes to the Republican Party platform. Romney has a habit of having all of the conventional answers when it comes to proving he’s a Republican.

But there are some other Gramm comparisons that do fit.

Like Gramm, Romney appears to be buying an organization. Romney's campaign has been dogged by charges (mostly from opponents) of buying conservative love.

Buying an organization can have its benefits; conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C., have given Romney a pass on some key issues.

But when you have to buy an organization, resentment can build among folks who weren’t asked to join the party.

Giuliani, McCain, Thompson and Huckabee all seem to have one thing in common – beating up Romney. In which case it’s hard to imagine any of them chosing Romney as their 2nd choice.

Also like Gramm, Romney's fighting a two-front war, one with Mike Huckabee in Iowa and one with Rudy Giuliani everywhere else.

Gramm had similar problems in ’96. He was fending off a hard charging conservative populist (Pat Buchanan) while also trying to take on the national frontrunner (Bob Dole) everywhere else.

Finally, the most apt comparison to Gramm may be in persona.

Gramm, Inc.
Somewhere along the line Gramm stopped being a person and morphed into an "inc." Gramm’s intellect and down home charm never came through on the campaign trail. Frankly, all I remember from his campaign is the line in his speech bragging about failing the 1st, 3rd and 7th grades. At least, that's how I mimick his stump speech for the 5 people that get the reference. (I have since fact-checked this and apparently I had two of the grades right, but he did pass the 1st grade. It turns out Gramm failed the 3rd, 7th and 9th grades. I'll have to update my standup routine.)

This leads me to write one of the more cliched pieces of advice political backseat drivers offer up: Romney needs to figure out how to be Romney again.

Thursday's speech on faith is one of the moments that the Romney camp hopes serves as the beginning of the turnaround. But if religion were the only issue Romney had to deal with, he’d be a more formidable frontrunner.

Right now, no campaign has struggled more with finding its center. The guy who had the best shot at becoming the "change" candidate inside the Republican Party morphed into someone who is trying to assure primary voters he'll be no different than any other Republican nominee before him.

The good news for Romney is that while this GOP campaign has gone through different phases – the rise of McCain, the yearning for Thompson, the fight for evangelicals, battling Rudy, and now the rise of Huckabee – one constant has remained: Romney.

But it's crunch time now. The candidate knows it. Looking back, if he fails, then backseat drivers galore will opine that Romney stopped being the Mitt Romney who figured out how to win in a state like Massachusetts.

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