Lost in the coverage of Haley Barbour's decision not to run for the Republican presidential nomination was a small gaffe made by Mitt Romney, the man who as much as anyone stands to benefit from Barbour's retreat.
In an op-ed published Monday in New Hampshire's Union Leader, the all-important Manchester newspaper, Romney hammered President Obama for his deficit-reduction plan and his overall economic policies — an argument key to the central Romney message that he would be a more effective steward of America's finances.
"Barack Obama is facing a financial emergency on a grander scale. Yet his approach has been to engage in one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history," Romney wrote. "With its failed stimulus package, its grandiose new social programs, its fervor for more taxes and government regulations, and its hostility toward business, the administration has made the debt problem worse, hindered economic recovery and needlessly cost American workers countless jobs."
All well and good, except that Romney used the word "peacetime" — an odd choice of adjective considering the U.S. military is on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and supporting airstrikes in Libya.
His campaign later issued a clarification, saying the former Massachusetts governor meant to say that Obama had embarked on one of the biggest spending binges since World War II. There were probably better places than New Hampshire to make the error, as the state is the linchpin of Romney's primary strategy early next year.
Still, as it turned out, Monday wasn't a bad day for Romney. Barbour, like Romney, is a fundraising force, an establishment Republican known for his business savvy. He would have chased much of the same kind of support Romney is looking to attract.
And perhaps, most important, the Mississippi governor's reluctance could go viral. With other possible contenders such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin on the fence, along with Barbour's close ally, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the conclusion by someone as politically astute as Barbour that the conditions aren't right for a run could have some sway on the decision-making processes of others.
All of that hesitation plays into Romney's hands. The Republican would like to acquire some patina of inevitability to propel his candidacy. Monday was a step in that direction.