The Republican nominating contest is taking a much needed siesta this week, with no primaries, debates or other confabulations planned. But the polls are still trickling out and they’re ugly for the ever precarious front runner, Mitt Romney.
A survey from Public Policy Polling found him trailing Rick Santorum by 15 points in Michigan, Romney’s home state and the next competitive contest on the primary calendar. Another poll conducted nationally by Pew showed Santorum pulling even nationally, with double-digit leads over Romney among conservatives, Tea Partyers and Evangelicals. Tracking data from Gallup and a national poll from the New York Times and CBS News bear similar results. Public opinion is fickle, and this year’s primary race has been defined by its volatility from the outset, but Santorum’s rise has the making of something different: real trouble for Romney.
Santorum is not an ideal candidate. His congressional paper trail leaves him open to attacks from the right on earmarks, labor issues and entitlement spending. His campaign has been disorganized, unable to transfer early success in Iowa to the following contests or tap into a major donor base beyond Wyoming benefactor Foster Freiss. He tried to contest New Hampshire with a series of improvised, churlish town-hall appearances and arrived in South Carolina on shaky foal legs. His money shortage led him to cede Florida, and it wasn’t until the nonbinding contests of early February that Santorum found his footing with conservative activists, who play a larger role in caucus states. But Santorum’s strengths — and he does have them — interlock with Romney’s weaknesses in a way that no other Republican insurgent’s has.
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Strident social conservatism and a blue collar economic message are the hallmarks of the Santorum brand. Romney has little credibility with voters on either count. His evolution on abortion renders him compromised in the eyes of many Evangelicals, and repeated gaffes relating to personal wealth, coupled with his corporate consulting background, have hurt him among lower-income and non-college-educated Americans. In Michigan, Romney isn’t helping himself much on the latter point. In an op-ed running Tuesday in the Detroit News, Romney reminds Michiganders of his opposition to Obama’s auto-bailout and disdain for United Auto Workers. But the rescue plan is fairly popular there, and in the past, even staunch opponents of organized labor have toned down their rhetoric when campaigning in the union-heavy state.
Romney still has the biggest advantages possible in a presidential race: massive funding, Establishment support and a strong electability case to make. Republican movers and shakers are unlikely to desert Romney. He’s putting his money to work in Michigan and elsewhere to head off the Santorum threat — Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Romney, has already locked in $500,000 for Michigan ads for the next two weeks.
We don’t yet know whether they’ll be pro-Romney or anti-Santorum, but if Romney’s clinical takedown of Newt Gingrich was any indication, they’ll most likely look like this anti-Santorum spot ROS cut for Florida: Update: Here’s what ROS will be running:
But the latest surveys show Romney’s electability defense eroding. Pew found Santorum performing roughly as well against Obama as Romney does, with the President leading them 52-44 and 53-43, respectively.
In politics, missteps become disasters when they fit into a pre-existing narrative. His rivals’ argument that Romney would be a weak general-election candidate is predicated on two notions: that Romney can’t excite conservatives and that his tin-earedness to the needs of Joe and Jane Flyover makes him a liability with swing voters. There’s no doubt that Romney is having trouble turning out his supporters; losing Michigan, his native state, would show the problem compounding. For now, the idea that Romney can’t connect is a stylistic critique with little evidence that it’s costing him a huge number of real votes. Romney’s actually done well in open primaries where fiscally conservative yet socially liberal independents have backed him over his opponents. But if he loses a string of Midwestern states (Minnesota’s done, and Michigan and possibly Ohio could follow) to Santorum’s blue collar coalition, there’d be some concrete evidence that his most powerful argument — that he is best equipped to defeat Barack Obama — may be becoming marginalized.
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