Rick Santorum’s triple victory on Tuesday says more about Mitt Romney than it does about Santorum. After two impressive wins in Florida and Nevada, the Romney path to victoryappeared to be clear, with Newt Gingrich having finally run out of comebacks, Ron Paul falling by the wayside, and Rick Santorum losing what little traction he had. And yet, Tuesday reminded us once again that Romney can’t close the deal. Santorum is simply the newest anti-Mitt.
Since he declared his candidacy last spring, the book on Romney has been that he can’t attract the more conservative elements of the Republican party, and can’t generate enthusiasm for his candidacy. For most of last year, he hovered around 25 per cent support and every month or so, one of his opponents would surge ahead to illustrate the general discomfort with Romney inside the GOP. His flip flops on gay rights, abortion rights, and gun control, along with the healthcare reform he implemented in Massachusetts, are presented as evidence that Romney is not a reliable conservative.
Despite these shortcomings, Romney was nonetheless able to build a national organization, raise significant capital, and obtain establishment endorsements as the primary and caucus season got underway. While he suffered a setback against Gingrich in South Carolina and narrowly lost Iowa, no serious pundit expressed any doubts about Romney’s chances of winning the contest. Even with his poor performance on Tuesday, compounded by a weak concession speech, Romney is still the odds-on favorite to win and be President Obama’s opponent in the fall.
But the race hasn’t been kind to Romney. He is increasingly starting to look like hapless predecessors such as Bob Dole and John McCain—fine men, but weak candidates.
To counter the conservative attacks he’s faced, Romney has had to push his policies more to the right, pulling him dangerously away from the mainstream for a general election. Separate attacks on his tax records, his performance as governor, and his role at Bain Capital have made him all the more vulnerable come the general election. Meantime, his verbal gaffes regarding the poor, corporations, and firing people, have shown he’s unable to display the discipline needed for the long haul of a presidential campaign. Romney may be more electable than Newt, but not by much.
This does not mean that the Obama campaign should be breaking out the champagne. The economy will still be a factor in the fall, and despite good job numbers last week, the recovery remains modest at best and another downturn is always possible. But Romney’s campaign so far confirms the worst suspicions of many Republicans: that he is a less than adequate candidate to pit against Obama in an election Republicans felt was winnable.