In the increasingly likely scenario that Rudy Giuliani does not win today’s Republican primary in Florida, only two remaining candidates will have a shot at the Republican nomination prior to the Republican convention: John McCain and Mitt Romney. But it won’t be the first time that the two have competed.

In the last weeks of 2007, it became clear that Romney and McCain were the only candidates with a chance to win in New Hampshire. Romney was ahead in the polls, but McCain was surging from behind; so the Romney campaign ran television ads comparing the record of the two candidates on immigration and taxes. Romney called them “contrast ads,” while McCain characterized them as “attacks.” The media accepted McCain’s interpretation, and stories in print and online soon referenced the ads as the opening salvo in a now-negative campaign. Try as he might to induce the media to distinguish policy critique from character attack, Romney had already lost the battle, as McCain and his supporters had located Romney’s vulnerability.

Justified by “being attacked first,” McCain and his supporters gleefully tore into Romney, criticizing his character at every point. They painted him as a phony, an opportunist, a flip-flopper and a liar. McCain’s critique dominated the coverage of the two debates held in the final three days before the primary. In the first (the 11th Republican debate overall) the candidates ganged up on Romney, obscuring the discussion of the issues, leaving the whole field looking silly. The articles published the following day focused almost entirely on McCain’s evident distaste for Romney and gave it the cast of righteous anger.

In the second (the 12th overall), McCain was much more subdued, and Romney shone. Most conservative pundits online, regardless of orientation toward other candidates, called the debate a victory for Romney. But coverage of the debate in both local and national media was highly selective or absent entirely. The implication is that the debate did not fit the preconceived narrative of Romney as an instigator in the conflict with McCain. The critique of Romney stuck; he lost 46 to 29 among the voters who reported making up their minds in the final three days; and he lost the primary 37 to 32.

Exit-polls indicated that those voters who made decisions on the basis of policy preferred Romney, while those who made decisions on the basis of character preferred McCain. The Romney campaign could therefore draw the conclusion that it ought to focus all the more on making people aware of the policy distinctions between the two. But that would be misguided for two reasons.

First, when two candidates get into a spat prior to an election, it becomes difficult for voters to determine which candidate, if either, is being honest. Voters must then turn to the realm of character, which includes the context and meta-narratives of campaigns, to make a decision. Second, exit polls reveal nothing more than the justificatory framework within which voters explain their decisions. But the human mind is not clear and distinct to itself; so exit polls are bound to simplify or even distort their account of the decision-making process.

Dwelling on policy differences will not win the day for Romney. Rather, he must project the character of his candidacy, which differs substantially from that of McCain. McCain is indeed a national hero, a character steeped in an ethic of honor. His experience in the military indelibly structured his self-perception, making clear to himself his position at the top of a hierarchy of public servants. And he considers the progress of national affairs a solemn trust to be directed in accordance with the responsibility imposed by his station. His is a Medieval or even Homeric candidacy, a throwback to a different age.

Romney’s fundamental faith is the American creed — the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence — and his life reflects its influence. Like the great revolutionaries and pioneers of American history, he was born into a traditional social order, but subsequently empowered by inalienable rights to throw off convention and pursue his fortune. His defining traits are hard work, know-how and optimism. He is thus deeply in-tune with the American founding myth, the kind of man envisioned by Jefferson to lead the country’s generational revolution without compromising the spirit of progress that animates America again and again.

McCain is a man of integrity because he embodies the virtues appropriate to his character. Though the virtues appropriate to Romney’s character are different, his integrity is just as pronounced. McCain may be more poetic, but Romney is more American. Voters must therefore choose between a leader transcending their own mold and a leader representing the best of it.

Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.