Santorum Takes It to the Top
For a while now, I’ve been convinced of Mitt Romney’s eventual triumph in the Republican presidential primary. It’s not that he was the most well-liked or conservative candidate—we have years of evidence to show that neither is true—but that he was the only candidate with a campaign that could win. So far, however, Republicans have done everything they can to avoid the Romney coronation: They made Rick Santorum a viable player with a win in Iowa; they elevated Newt Gingrich with South Carolina; and after a stop in Florida, where Romney pummeled his opponents with negative advertising, they have returned to Santorum with wins in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado.
When I wrote about those earlier in the week, I was convinced that they wouldn’t mean much, since Santorum hasn’t been able to capitalize on the momentum generated by his wins. This time, however, might be different. In the latest national survey of Republicans by Public Policy Polling, Santorum leads with 38 percent to 23 percent for Mitt Romney, 17 percent for Newt Gingrich, and 13 percent for Ron Paul. This looks bad for Romney, but if Gingrich drops out, it gets far worse—in a three-person race, Santorum gets 50 percent to Romney’s 28 and Paul’s 15.
Like an increasingly large percentage of the country itself, Republicans just don’t like Mitt Romney. His favorability rating is barely positive at 44 percent favorable to 43 percent unfavorable, and he does poorly with the large majority of conservative voters. More important, the near-silence of GOP elites—he doesn’t inspire visceral hatred, like Gingrich—suggests that they could live with a Santorum nomination if it came to that.
The only thing Romney has to count on is the fact that primaries are fought state-by-state, on their own terms. As we’ve seen with virtually every other person running for the Republican nomination, a national lead doesn’t translate into support from voters. It’s possible—and given the past, likely—that Santorum never gains from his boomlet, and falls again into (relative) obscurity. But the Romney campaign shouldn’t get much consolation from that.
In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought a hard, bitter primary, but even still, both sides could agree that either candidate would make a great nominee for the presidency. This year’s GOP primary is not so cordial. Not only are Republicans faced with a weak field of candidates, but their leading candidate—the formerly moderate former governor of Massachusetts—is disliked by the base of his party, and widely viewed as a joke, a fraud, and dangerously out-of-touch with most Americans. And he’s so desperate to win that he’s willing to adopt the most conservative, unpopular beliefs if they can take him to victory.
If this were an episode of the West Wing, we would say that now is the time for Romney to be Romney. To dispense with the pandering, and see if Republicans like the real Mitt. But there’s the problem. No one knows if there’s a “real Mitt.” He’s been through so many transformations—and taken so many positions—that any try at “authenticity” would look like a new attempt to pander. Romney is stuck, and I’m not sure if there’s anything he can do about it.
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