Conservative Doubts about Romney Persist

Jim Malone

February 12, 2012

Just when you think you have a handle on the 2012 Republican Party presidential primary race there’s another twist in the road. This time the twist was supplied by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.

Santorum’s surprise wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado once again scrambled the notion that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was on a glide path to the Republican nomination. Give Santorum some credit. He was busy mining votes in three states overlooked by the national media in the wake of the big early battles in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

After Romney’s convincing win in Florida, it seemed as if he was on that nomination glide path at last. He followed up with another easy win in Nevada, helped by solid support from Mormon Republican voters in the Silver State.

So what happened? Did Santorum steal some victories out from under Romney’s nose? Or did the vaunted Romney political machine hit yet another stumble on the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August?

It was probably a bit of both, frankly. But now the Romney crowd has to worry about the national whispers again that he cannot secure the support of hard core conservative Republican voters. He seems to have had a problem with this crowd all along, especially in South Carolina. These are the same folks who turned out in good numbers for Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.

It seems Romney still has some work to do to allay conservative fears that he is nothing more than an old-fashioned Republican moderate disguised as a newly-converted conservative. Santorum’s upset wins have re-focused attention on Romney’s problem with the conservative base vote in the Republican Party, and it’s unclear moving forward how exactly the former Massachusetts governor will deal with a challenge that just doesn’t seem to go away.

Scrambled Race Heads for Super Tuesday

The next big primary contests on the calendar come at the end of the month in Arizona and Michigan. Now Michigan is the state Romney grew up in while his dad was involved in the auto industry, so that should give Romney a huge advantage there. The state I’m beginning to wonder about is Arizona, where immigration border issues and the conservative Tea Party influence could have a major impact on the Republican race there.

Romney has staked out a tough anti-illegal immigration stance that should help him with conservative voters for whom that is the primary issue. But you have to wonder if conservative doubts about Romney on issues like health care and global warming will take hold in a state where the conservative rhetoric can get pretty tough.

Still, who emerges as Romney’s main competition in Arizona? Can Santorum capitalize on his victories this week? Or is he too focused on social issues to have broader appeal to those primarily concerned with government spending or the budget deficit? And what about Newt Gingrich? Where does he fit into this equation?

Gingrich seems to be more focused on the important Super Tuesday contests on March 6th when several states hold primaries on the same day, including his native Georgia and other southern states. Gingrich is hoping a good showing in the South will keep him viable for several more weeks with the additional hope that conservative doubts about Romney will continue to grow.

The problem is as long as conservatives split their vote between Gingrich and Santorum, Romney will probably appear to be the mostly likely nominee. I say probably at this point because who knows where the next twists and turns will come in this process.

Obama’s Improving Poll Numbers

Another worrisome development for Republicans is President Barack Obama’s improving position in national public opinion polls. In the latest Washington Post ABC News poll, Mr. Obama’s overall approval rating hit 50 percent for the first time since May in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Fifty percent may not sound like much, but the trend is in the right direction for a president who was mired in the mid to low 40’s for much of the past year. In addition, the president now leads Mitt Romney in a general election matchup among all Americans by a margin of 52 to 43 percent.

Among registered voters, that margin drops to 51 to 45 in favor of the president. Combine these latest polls numbers and another drop in the unemployment rate to 8.3 percent for January, and you have the makings of at least a temporary political turnaround for the president.

Now we all know this may not last and that the economy is, at the very least, unpredictable. But if the trend continues of adding jobs and lowering the unemployment rate, then Mr. Obama’s approval numbers are likely to follow.

It’s hard enough to defeat an incumbent president even in difficult economic times. If the public believes that the economy is improving and that the country is headed in the right direction, it can be almost an impossible task.

The Obama campaign continues to hope that he can replicate what Ronald Reagan did during his re-election test in 1984. Mr. Reagan headed into that election the year before with a high jobless rate and low public approval ratings.

But as the economy improved late in 1983 and through 1984 it became apparent the public mood had shifted and that people were more upbeat about the future. Not only were jobs added, but people had more money to spend and that fed the impression of an improving economy.

In the end it was too much for Mr. Reagan’s Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, who lost in a landslide that November.

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