It looks like last week wasn't an unmitigated disaster for Mitt Romney after all. He managed to scrape together a three-point win over Ron Paul in Maine when results were announced Saturday night, just hours after this year's CPAC poll declared him the winner over Rick Santorum, 38% to 31%.
It was a last-minute save for Romney, who has had one of the worst weeks since he began his campaign last year. Santorum seemed to be on the precipice of actually challenging Governor Romney for the coveted media coronation-title of "frontrunner" for a few days, following the former Pennsylvania senator's triple victory in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri February 7.
Since Governor Romney won the former two states by wide margins in 2008, his losing them four years later as the putative frontrunner did not bode well for his ability to win over the very conservative wing of his party, which will be crucial for turnout in the general election.
Nonetheless, because the three caucuses last Tuesday were nonbinding, Santorum is still losing 2-1 to Romney in terms of total delegates earned. Gingrich is in third place while Paul, who hasn't won a single contest yet, languishes in last place.
The economy temporarily receded as a campaign topic and social issues like birth control and gay marriage took a turn dominating the news cycle in a way they haven't since the Bush-Kerry election in 2004. As a result, Romney--his candidacy based virtually entirely on his perceived ability to fix the economy--began to flag in the caucuses as well as the polls, just as Rick Santorum's star began to rise.
Santorum's campaign since the very beginning has been framed around the "guns, God, and gays" rhetoric that seemed more at home in the Republican Party when Bush was president. Rick Santorum was one of President Bush's most faithful allies in the Senate on social and faith-related issues, notwithstanding Santorum's refusing to mention Bush in relation to himself even once in any stump speech he's given as part of this presidential campaign.
Santorum has managed to basically erase the vast majority of the last eight years of Republican stewardship in the White House--all the Republican candidates are--along with his association to it. He avoids bringing up the painful details of a previous era of Republican social conservatism and--arguably--disinterest in economic workings beyond "low taxes, low regulation, etc. etc. etc."
He has instead selectively picked the aspects of that conservative persona that remain politically viable within the party's primary process: the humble, hardworking rural man who nonetheless can see through the 'elites' in Washington; the image of the faith-crusader president that so many in places like Iowa, Texas, and rural Pennsylvania will vote for in an almost knee-jerk fashion.
And in a Republican year that has left the far-right of the party absolutely starved of conservative red meat--that sort of thing never having really been Mitt Romney's forte--just the idea of a Santorum candidacy gets these folks revved up in a way they haven't been in years, after the fall of their last president, the failure of their disappointingly moderate 2008 nominee, a 2012 race that seems headed toward the inevitable nomination of yet another moderate runner-up from an earlier Republican presidential primary year.
As Chris Matthews said so well during MSNBC's coverage of the caucuses the night of Santorum's Feb. 7 three-state sweep, Republican caucus-goers are supporting Santorum because, after voting for him, "they feel like they just took a bath. After they vote for Romney, they feel like they need one."
Those very voters were the reason Santorum did so surprisingly well in Iowa, where the social conservative streak is stronger than just about anywhere else in the country, and his continued, perpetual hammering of these issues that neither Romney nor Gingrich would touch until they absolutely had to continue to garner at least grudging support among conservatives for his consistency, if nothing else--a trait noticably lacking in Governor Romney.
When those very issues--Catholic payment for birth control, the unconstitutionality of Proposition 8 in California--became for a few days the absolute focal point of the Republican primary campaign, the entire American media covering domestic politics seemed to simultaneously conclude that Santorum was headed toward a full-on displacement of Romney at the top of the campaign totem pole.
In the wake of Romney's successful make-up day last week, however, the media seems to have reversed course just as quickly as they deployed the pro-Santorum narrative, declaring in the aftermath of Romney's Saturday comeback that, if anything, the last week had been a Romney-Santorum tie; which, in the end, is a Romney win by default, since the status quo supports his nomination, not Santorum's. Santorum is going to need better than that if he wants to make a credible claim to even co-frontrunner status.
Romney, for his part, will need to do better than simply tying with social issues candidates on the rightward fringe of the American political spectrum--not to mention losing heaps of caucus states to said rightwing nutjob--if he wishes to present himself as a Republican nominee with a credible chance of winning this November 6.
Having spent the past week traipsing around awkwardly in his campaign jeans while describing simple birth control as "abortive pills," however, is unlikely to have done him any favors with independents either, considering women are already a Republican weak spot in the electorate, and that independents, as a rule, are more on the Democratic Party's side as it comes to social issues, and in this election in particular are overwhelmingly focused on the economy as it is.
For now, the former governor will have to satisfy himself with his caucus win and his CPAC straw poll victory. In the former, Ron Paul was considered a likely winner, due to the weeklong length and low turnout of Maine's caucuses (low turnout in any race tends to give a boost to the candidate with the most fervent supporters: in this campaign, that would most certainly be Paul. In the run-up to the latter, many assumed Santorum or Paul would win the poll (Paul won it in 2010 and 2011); nonetheless, Romney pulled it out there too.
Since that poll is largely a contest of campaign organization, the CPAC straw poll victory shows that Governor Romney's campaign structure has not deteriorated in the wake of his tough week. If Romney can hold together his large organization on the ground and keep his level of national support just one vote in each state above Rick Santorum's--if no better--he will be able to pull out victories in Arizona and Michigan later this month on the 28th and will be able to win at least half of the ten states up for grabs on Super Tuesday on March 6.
If he can manage that, Governor Romney just might succeed in knocking Santorum back down to where Gingrich now sits: looking up. Whether he can do the same to President Obama is another matter.
About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.
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