GEORGE ROMNEY died last week running in place on a treadmill. Just like his presidential campaign. Twenty-eight years ago today the same thing happened to his presidential ambitions.
Romney was the governor of Michigan in 1967. He was the first Republican to announce he was running for the 1968 presidential nomination. The conservative wing of the party had taken a drubbing in 1964, and the liberal Romney was now the early front-runner.
But his campaign never got out of the treadmill stage. The Gallup Poll had him ahead of Richard Nixon by 4 points in February, behind him by 9 points in March, 14 points behind by early summer.
By August he was trailing Nixon by 17 points. The reason was Vietnam. Nixon was keeping his mouth shut on the war, but Romney was trying to come up with a policy in public. He thought the press was to blame for his looking wishy-washy. He sought a chance to speak directly to a national audience.
A friend of his in Detroit, Lou Gordon, was about to launch a syndicated TV talk show. He needed a big name to get started. He told Romney the show would be broadcast in Boston, thus reaching New Hampshire voters, who, then as now, were the first to vote in presidential primaries. Romney agreed to go on.
The show was taped Aug. 31. Asked by Gordon about why he had changed from hawk to dove on Vietnam, Romney replied that he had supported the war effort at first because he had been "brainwashed" by U.S. generals and diplomats on a trip to Vietnam.
That was it. Politically he was dead. Who wants a brainwashed president? Romney dropped 10 more points in the Gallup Poll after the show was broadcast. He fell from second behind Nixon to fourth behind Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan.
It was over, but Romney kept running -- and falling farther behind. A party poll of New Hampshire Republicans in December had Nixon at 64 percent and Romney at 12. A few weeks later, Nixon's lead was six to one in Romney's own polls.
So he quit the race. I can't think of another instance of a bona fide presidential candidate dropping out of a contest before the first voting on the basis of bad polls.
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Romney could have won the election and been denied the presidency.
Well, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico (of American parents). The Constitution says, "No person except a natural-born citizen or citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President."
Constitutional scholars with nothing else to do have often debated whether a child born abroad of American parents qualifies. The consensus view is that "natural-born" does not mean "native born." But it's never happened and so never tested. If Romney had been elected, somebody probably would have taken the issue to court.