The South Hates Romney. Will it Matter?

If the polls are accurate, Rick Santorum is headed for a big win Saturday in Louisiana. That will make it almost a clean sweep for the Santorum/Gingrich (anti-Romney) faction of the party in the southern states. The only southern state Romney has won (of course Florida is not a southern state) is Virginia, and Santorum and Gingrich weren’t on the ballot in VA.

It’s not terribly surprising. Southern Republican primaries tend to be dominated by the one demographic most opposed to Romney: evangelicals. Undoubtedly, Romney’s Mormon faith is a larger issue in these states than in most of the rest of the country.

So, there is this conundrum: the south is the heart and soul of the modern GOP, yet Romney does horrible there in the primaries. So should he be worried? Not really. In the general election against Barack Obama, MItt Romney will carry every southern state he has lost in the primaries. They are red states. They will not vote to reelect Barack Obama.

But where it could matter is in some of the swing states, such as Ohio. And, ironically, in Virginia. Ohio is a rust belt state, an industrial state that is always a crucial place for Republicans to win in the General Election. The anti-Romney Republicans don’t constitute as big a percentage there as they do in the south, but it could dampen turnout just enough to allow Obama to carry Ohio.

Of course, it’s still a long way to November, and those dynamics could shift enough to give Romney more breathing room. In the meantime, he and his campaign have to find a way to mobilize those voters.

Florida’s Jeb Bush is throwing out a big hint to Romney that might do the trick: “Make Marco Rubio your VP.”

Rick Santorum, Meet Jerry Brown

This morning I’m pondering the striking similarities between this year’s Republican presidential primaries and the 1992 Democratic primaries that nominated Bill Clinton.

Think about it. Bill Clinton was the frontrunner, but a “weak” frontrunner. Party officials and many primary voters were concerned that his history of scandals (the draft and infidelity) would make it hard for him to beat incumbent President George H.W. Bush. There was a significant “anybody but Clinton” movement in the party ranks. But he was seen by most as far and away the most “electable” candidate due to his more “moderate” positions on the issues and his experience as a “governor.” He argued that he would be able to attract moderates and independents in a way that the other candidates couldn’t.

Surprisingly, Clinton’s main threat turned out to be the lightly regarded former California Governor Jerry Brown, known to many at the time as Governor Moonbeam, for his off-the-wall ideas. Brown was running as the “more liberal” candidate and, after forcing former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas from the race, he became, for a time, a serious challenge to Gov. Clinton.

Reflecting the deep doubts many in the party had about him, Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary to Tsongas. But he recovered in the southern primaries, building his lead back. (Clinton became the first candidate since the rise of the primary system to get elected without winning the NH primary)

In mid-March, Jerry Brown finished a close second to Clinton in the Michigan primary, leading Tsongas to drop out after finishing a disappointing third. Clinton was still the frontrunner, but the party base wasn’t yet sold. The big upset came in Connecticut on March 24 when Brown upset Clinton in that state’s primary, reshuffling the race and setting up a two-man contest between the moderate Clinton and the more liberal Brown.

The campaign grew very heated, with Brown questioning the ethics of Hillary Clinton in a televised debate, while Clinton responded with outrage. The showdown came in the NY primary on April 7. Brown pulled a major gaffe, however, saying he would make Jesse Jackson his running mate. In NY, Jackson was still remembered for his infamous “hymietown” remark. Clinton won the NY primary and seized the momentum. But Brown stayed in the race, hammering Clinton for two more months and then all the way to the convention. Clinton didn’t wrap up the nomination until June after winning the California primary.

This year, the role of Bill Clinton is being played by Mitt Romney. And the role of Jerry Brown is being played by Rick Santorum. I guess that makes Newt Gingrich Paul Tsongas, only he refuses to drop out. He probably hasn’t read the script.

Here Comes Mr. Nice Guy

The competitive phase of the GOP presidential nomination race is effectively over. No, Mitt Romney hasn’t put it away yet, but who could, given the elongated primary/caucus system this year? The Super PACs all but guarantee that marginal or even long-shot candidates can stay in the race as long as the money keeps flowing.

But the likelihood is, neither Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or anyone else, will be in a position to deny Romney the nomination in Tampa – even if no candidate has a majority. But with more friendly state primaries coming up, and the role of some big winner-take-all states, Romney could in fact wrap it up before Tampa, at least by June.

One major problem Romney has now, and that the Republican Party has, is the ugliness and pettiness of the primary campaigns we have been witnessing. Unlike the 2008 Obama/Clinton Democratic primary competition, this one has been turning off independents, especially women. That’s a problem. Appealing to swing voters was supposed to be one of Romney’s strengths as a General Election candidate. So they have some work to do.

That’s why the Romney campaign should now pivot away from the highly negative campaign messages aimed at his primary opponents and move a little bit closer to a General Election mode. Keep up the assaults on President Obama, but soft-pedal the anti-Santorum and anti-Gingrich stuff.

I know, I know, some will say he shouldn’t change something if it seems to be working. But the longer the harsh campaign spots and tactics continue, the harder it will be to repair the damage among some key demographic groups Romney will need this fall if he gets the GOP nod. And he doesn’t have to completely lay off his primary opponents, just take it easier.

Romney is very likely to win the nomination now; continuing to grind Santorum and Gingrich into the ground could only alienate those core conservatives he will need to turn out in high numbers if he has a prayer of defeating Barack Obama.

The Romney campaign will have to pay particular attention to wooing suburban women voters, an always powerful voting bloc. Republican nominees are usually in this position, think back to George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism” in 2000 that worked reasonably well.

The convention in Tampa will be a potential minefield, with multiple competing egos and important party constituencies that will have to feel satisfied heading into the fall campaign. That will be must-see TV.

What Does Ron Paul Want?

Ron Paul knows that he will never be elected president. The man is not dumb. In fact he’s pretty sharp. Currently, he’s in fourth place in a field of four. But he is by no means out of the game.

He is not running for president so much as he is leading a movement aimed at two main goals in my view: 1) building up Libertarianism as a leading force for ideas and perspective in the nation’s political dialogue; and 2) making serious and long-lasting inroads into the national Republican Party.

We’ll see about number one, but he has already made progress on goal number two. When he first ran for president in 2008 he was a fringe figure, a curiosity, easily discounted. But by February 2012 he has become something more than that. By remaining in the mix he has become a force that Republicans have to deal with.

Perhaps most interesting, many have noted the amenable, if not close, relationship between the Ron Paul and Mitt Romney campaigns. Time after time in debates and in campaign speeches, Paul has taken it rather easy on Romney, while going pretty hard at Romney’s main rivals for the nomination, particularly Gingrich and Santorum. What gives?

Well, for one thing, Paul doesn’t see Romney as his main competitor – remember, he knows he won’t be elected President. One of the things Paul desperately wants is to be the second-most important person at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. And Gingrich and Santorum are in his way of achieving that. He wants to see them vanquished as serious candidates at some point, leaving him free to enter the Tampa convention with thousands of screaming Ron Paul supporters. In other words, he wants to play something like the Pat Buchanan role from 1992, addressing the nation in prime time, preaching the moral failings of the opposition party, and, hopefully for him, helping to elect Mitt Romney. Not that he loves Romney, of course, but he sees the Romney campaign as his ticket to ride. If Romney wins he will owe Ron Paul big. At least, that’s the way Ron Paul sees it.

Of course, Pat Buchanan didn’t help George H.W. Bush win. And even if Romney doesn’t win in November, Paul would still be a major player in the party, even bigger than Romney if Obama is reelected. So it’s a win-win.

The last thing Paul wants is Rick Santorum stretching things out until August, building his own following in the party and threatening Paul’s place in the Tampa limelight.

This is also why Paul won’t run as an independent candidate this fall. He wants to emerge as a major player in the GOP, so why would he spoil that now?

Paul also has to be thinking about the long term. He won’t be around forever. But he has a son. Paul’s long term strategy likely involves his son Rand Paul, U.S. Senator from Kentucky, taking over the movement, perhaps as soon as 2016.

A Brokered Convention? What a Horror Show!

Republicans hoping for a brokered convention in Tampa this August like to live dangerously. A brokered convention, or even an “open” contested convention, would be just about the worst possible outcome from the 2012 primaries. Why? It is the opposite of what you want heading into a fall campaign against an incumbent president flush with campaign cash.

What you would like to have is a strong candidate, one who prevailed in a majority of the primaries (even if it took a while), a candidate who has closed the ranks of his party firmly behind him by the time of the convention, and a candidate who is successfully raising the money necessary to wage a winning fall campaign.

An open convention takes away most if not all of those “good” things. In their place would be things that are mostly bad.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane with the Ghost of Conventions Past. In the last few decades there have been a fair number of conventions that were not settled by the time the delegates gathered, or where the party was clearly divided, or where the nomination was openly contested.

1964, the Goldwater and Rockefeller factions were in open warfare.
1968, the Democrats tore each other apart during the selection of Hubert Humphrey.
1976, Reagan very nearly took the party nomination away from an incumbent president.
1980, Carter had not completely sewn things up and there was a large Kennedy presence at the convention and much animosity between the two.
1984, Mondale limped into the convention, winning on the first ballot, but Hart had severely undercut him.
1992, incumbent President George H.W. Bush, humiliated in the primaries by Pat Buchanan, won on the first ballot, but that convention is remembered for Buchanan’s delegates cheering him on as he declared a “cultural war,” much to the horror of the national television audience.

Now, what do all of these conventions have in common? They all nominated candidates that went on to lose the General Election. There were other factors involved certainly, but in each case, the party nominee was weakened by the process.

What is likely to happen in 2012?

If Mitt Romney survives the Michigan primary and stays above water on Super Tuesday, he will likely still be able to win a majority of delegates by June – particularly once the “winner take all” primaries begin.

If, however, he loses Michigan, his home state, the bleeding continues. If he then does not come back strong on Super Tuesday, the Romney ship would begin to take on water. The remainder of the primaries might then be divided between he and Rick Santorum, or if Romney looks like a lost cause, one could even imagine Santorum winning most of the last set of primaries, though probably not by enough to give him a majority of the delegates.

Then you would have your open convention, and all of the nastiness and ill will that would follow. But it probably won’t happen.

Party Like its 1996!

Republicans are starting to get that queasy feeling. You know, that feeling in the pit of the stomach when they realized that Bob Dole was going to be the presidential nominee going up against Bill Clinton. No, there isn’t going to be a President Santorum.

But at this rate, there won’t be a President Romney either. I’m straining to remember the last time a major party ran away so persistently from its presumed front-runner – unless it was President George HW Bush in 1992.

Republicans wanted this to be a rerun of 1980, when Jimmy Carter was shown the door by the voters. In fact, ever since Barack Obama has been in office, some have referred to it as Jimmy Carter’s second term. And for a while there was some logic to that.

But instead of 1980, it may be starting to resemble 1996. Mr. Obama is even starting to sound a little like Bill Clinton, talking about hiring 100,000 new teachers. Next comes more cops on the street and school uniforms. And just as with Clinton, the economy may have turned a corner in time to save him. We’ll see. But more importantly, the GOP looks like they’re blowing it.

Looking ahead to 2012, Republicans wanted a Mitch Daniels, a Jeb Bush, or a Chris Christie to go with their Mitt Romney. Some even thought Tim Pawlenty would be a good alternative. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Maybe Daniels and Christie knew something – could it be they anticipated Obama would have an easier time than conventional wisdom thought at the time and their chances would be better running for a vacant presidency in 2016? Maybe.

But with those non-candidates in the race, and the collapse of Pawlenty and then Rick Perry (he really should have waited until 2016), many conservatives felt like they were left at the altar. How else can one explain the infatuation with Herman Cain, and then Newt Gingrich? And Romney hasn’t done himself any favors by doing his best George HW Bush impersonation – getting tongue-tied and blurting out ridiculous phrases about firing people, not caring about poor people, and being a “severe” conservative. Good lord, we know what he means, but is that the best he can communicate? Maybe he needs to spend more time with Roger Ailes, as Ronald Reagan did in campaign 1984.

It’s still pretty early. The convention in Tampa is still in the distance. But if I were the Republicans I don’t think I would feature anymore endorsements from Bob Dole.

If Romney is the GOP’s Hillary Clinton, who is the Obama?

Romney had a bad night. Conservatives, particularly evangelicals, still don’t like him. He has performed poorly in the midwest thus far, not a good omen for a general election, where the midwest is crucial. The Romney campaign minimizes the losses in MN, MO, and CO, saying they are caucus states with not many delegates at stake. That sounds a good bit like the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2008, in which her campaign underestimated the role of the caucus states, much to Obama’s delight and later to her own peril, as she saw the nomination slip away.

The Romney campaign didn’t put much money or time into MN, and practically none in MO. One could almost understand losing those two states to Santorum, who has worked hard there. But Colorado? Not good, Mitt. The question being asked today is, did the Romney camp blow it by not working harder in MN and CO? Especially after Hillary’s blown caucus strategy of 08?

The only consolation the Romney folks can take away is that Newt Gingrich did even worse.

Meantime, the Obamas are laughing it up. Things are moving in their direction: the economy is on the upswing (we’ll see about that one); Clint Eastwood seems to like his chances; Bin Laden is still dead; and the GOP is having an identity crisis – one that may chip away at any chance they have (had) at making Obama a one-termer.

Let’s be clear here: Barack Obama would love to run against either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, he could almost mail it in. Romney might be a little tougher, but the trend lines are making it a much harder campaign than the GOP thought it would be just a few months ago.

Fall Election a Referendum or a Choice?

The Obama White House does not want the fall presidential campaign to be a referendum on President Obama’s time in office, as most presidential reelection campaigns are. Because if it is, he is extremely vulnerable. Rather, the Obama team will try to make the campaign narrative a “choice” between Obama’s “bold, 21st century” leadership and the “cold, heartless, corporate” Mitt Romney. I can hear it now: “Don’t turn the clock back,” Obama surrogates will say.

Currently, swing state polls show Romney within striking distance of the President, the only Republican candidate even close. So I expect this fall’s campaign to be one of the most negative in American history. President Obama has to get in the mud, because he will have to try and make the Romney “choice” unacceptable. The Romney team will gladly engage, now having a new appreciation (post-Florida) for bashing one’s opponent on the skull and not stopping.

I don’t know who will win this blood bath to come. President Obama will have more money, but he will spend much of it defending his record.

One thing that Democratic supporters of Obama and socially conservative Republicans have agreed on this winter – they both wanted Newt Gingrich to be the Republican nominee. That would have been great for the President – largely because there would be no way for Gingrich to expand his electoral base once he secured the nomination. For one thing, he is a regional candidate – he has very limited appeal outside the south. Faced with Newt’s past and his present, Independent voters would fall heavily toward Obama, and there would be a historically large Gender Gap favoring the Democrats. Contrary to popular belief among some in the GOP, Obama would have trounced Gingrich in the debates – remember, no audience applause. And Gingrich being Gingrich, by this fall there would probably have been a fairly large “Republicans for Obama” movement.

As it is, Romney will have his work cut out for him. In addition to attacking Barack Obama, he will have to get Republicans excited about his candidacy. The Reagan 1980, Clinton 1992, and Obama 2008 campaigns were successful in large part because they “moved” and “motivated” voters.

Romney has proven that he can improve as a candidate – witness the Florida campaign, especially the debates. But sometime between now and the convention he will have to take it a step further – he has to get conservatives behind him, but also make a case to independent voters not only that defeating President Obama will be a good thing, but that a Romney presidency will be a “great” thing. His future depends on it.

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Republicans are in serious trouble

Well, Mitt Romney must be feeling unloved right about now. He keeps offering himself to his party as a president, and they keep throwing him back. He suffers somewhat from the “Jack Kemp” problem. Kemp was the former US Congressman from NY and Bush Admin. official (who had been a football star in the NFL). Kemp would have been a very appealing presidential candidate in the General Election, but he could never quite get there.

In this year’s field of weak GOP presidential candidates, the Romney candidacy was billed as a no-brainer. He had the money, the experience, the endorsements, etc. One problem though, and it’s a big one: GOP voters don’t trust him. Maybe he reminds them too much of John McCain, who endorsed Romney in New Hampshire. Many Republicans are tired of moderates masquerading as conservatives.

But if not Romney, then who? Newt Gingrich? Wow. The Republican Party has sunk to a pretty low place when you are fighting to nominate a former Congressional leader who was outplayed by Bill Clinton, then run out of Washington by his own Republican colleagues after historic losses in 1998, then made a fortune on Washington insider politics, including service as a consultant to Freddie Mac, and who is on his third marriage, having betrayed his first two wives and left them when they were ill.

Yes, the GOP establishment is about to freak out, and for good reason. Newt Gingrich is one of the most unpopular political figures in America. He is a one-man voter registration and vote mobilization tidal wave for the Democratic Party.

Many Republicans want Gingrich because they believe he will “annihilate” President Obama in a debate. Well, that’s a lot of eggs to put in a wire basket. And it sounds suspiciously similar to what Al Gore supporters said about debating George W. Bush in 2000.

But if Gingrich becomes the nominee, Republicans will have little choice but to hold their noses, get behind him, and pray that Barack Obama is even more unpopular than him this November.

The Republicans who didn’t run: Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Chris Christie of New Jersey to name two, must be absolutely kicking themselves.

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Tumultous 2012 Politics Only the Beginning

Mitt Romney will be the 2012 presidential nominee. This has been evident for a while, but Romney’s center-right political orientation and his Mormonism provided an opening, ever so slight, for a more conservative candidate. But that’s over. None of the alternatives to Romney were credible, or savvy, enough to represent a serious threat.

So in the next weeks/months the Republican Party will morph into “Romney Country.” He will be the guy, and the 2012 campaign will bear his stamp.

What of his GOP primary opponents? Two of them, Pawlenty and Huntsman, have already endorsed him. Most of the others will surely follow. Yet, Ron Paul seems to have his own thing going – not a presidential campaign as much as a crusade for headlines, new donors, and airtime for his “movement.” Paul is taking the long-term view, past 2012. And Newt Gingrich? Will he overcome his hatred and personal animosity toward Romney to be part of the effort to defeat Barack Obama? Probably, only because he has little choice. His credibility and standing have been damaged enough in this campaign; to prolong the animus would only serve to make him a pariah in the party – bad for consulting fees and selling books.

The real fun will start later this spring and summer, when the Obama campaign team turns its attention to Bain Capital and to Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan. There will be a battle to define who Mitt Romney is, which will define much of the fall 2012 campaign.

Obama will focus on Romney’s role at Bain and will call him a corporate riader and portray him as a robber baron. Romney will say Obama is a failed president, and will bring up Obama’s ties to Solyndra. the solar energy firm that went bankrupt after receiving huge grants from the federal government.

Romney will have to do a better job of explaining what Bain does, and spin it into a strength. It may turn out that Newt Gingrich has done him a favor by focusing on it in the primaries, because it gives the Romney team an opportunity to get their story straight, instead of having to wait until the fall when time may be short.

Of course, everyone has their eyes on the unemployment rate and consumer confidence numbers. A strengthening economy and renewed optimism could make Romney’s case a much tougher sell than most Republicans thought it would be just a few months ago.

It’s also possible that a number of conservative Republicans, not convinced Romney is truly one of them, could sit out the fall election. This happened to a degree in 1992 and 1996, both Democratic years. If it happens again, these conservatives will get what they deserve, which is four more years of Barack Obama.

Both candidates, Romney and Obama, begin the year with relatively low approval ratings. The battle will be on very soon to shape how the nation views the Obama presidency and the strength of Romney’s case to replace him.