Republican candidate Mitt Romney didn’t get the knockout blow he needed in the Super Tuesday Republican primary, making it difficult to fully assume the mantle of front-runner and pivot to the general election battle against President Barack Obama.
“A lot of us just sort of assumed he would use a media campaign and blow this out of the water. He did not,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies.
“It tells me there is something going on here besides money. It shows that voters are really thinking about the issues rather than just listening to the ads. And it also shows Romney mightily struggles with conservative voters.”
At press time early Wednesday morning, Romney had won in five states, including Ohio. Santorum won three, Newt Gingrich one and Ron Paul none.
What makes the current campaign unique is that the candidates have powerful Super PACs backing them with money that doesn’t stop flowing, prolonging the nomination fight even as Romney’s delegate count makes it increasingly obvious that he will be the nominee, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“The question is, when will it end?” Sabato said. “As long as they have money they will continue to run. In the Super PAC era, it’s easy to continue to have money. It’s not like the old days when you had to raise money.”
Super PACs are independent political action committees that grew out of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing them to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for and against candidates.
While primaries typically involve candidate appeals to the party base, the general election requires broader support — including moderates and independents. Some analysts say the Republican nominee may have a hard time overcoming the bitter primary fight, particularly because debate about divisive social issues crowded out discussion of the economic issues that the majority of voters say matter most to them.
“So much of the focus has been on the social issues. It’s going to be hard to pivot back to the middle on those,” said Nancy Martorano Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton. “It’s especially hard for Mitt Romney because there are already charges he is a flip-flopper.”
Smith says Obama managed to overcome the wounds inflicted during his 2008 primary battle against Hillary Clinton, and he thinks Romney will as well.
“If Santorum can keep the race going, I don’t think it will hurt the Republicans in the long run,” Smith said. “I think whoever wins the GOP nomination will have very little residual damage. November is far, far away.”
Sabato said this race is not the same as the Obama-Clinton fight.
“The difference is the wind was at the Democrats back in 2008. I think the winds are variable in 2012,” Sabato said. “It’s not clear who is going to be helped one way or the other. The process certainly hasn’t helped Romney.”
Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC poll released this week showed all four Republican candidates have high unfavorable ratings among independent voters, with none of their favorable ratings topping 40 percent of voters sampled.
The Obama campaign moved to capitalize on the Republican rifts.
“Throughout this primary season, in states from coast to coast, Romney has turned off middle-class families, women, independents and even Republicans — many of whom are deeply unsatisfied with the weak field of candidates Romney leads,” said Jessica Kershaw, Obama’s Ohio campaign spokeswoman.
She touted Obama’s economic record — including 23 straight months of job creation and the auto industry rebound — and said it is “in sharp contrast” to Romney’s proposals to cut taxes on the wealthy and leave “middle-class Americans holding the bag.”
Spokesmen for Romney and Santorum say they are focusing on the economy and taking the battle to Obama.
“The bottom line is, our campaign has been about beating Barack Obama,” said Santorum political adviser J. Hogan Gidley. “Time after time, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been on the same side of important issues.”
Gidley said Santorum proved he can attract moderates and independents by winning election to the U.S. House and Senate in Pennsylvania. Santorum was in Congress from 1995 until he was unseated in the 2006 general election.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams called Santorum’s campaign “incompetent” and said Romney is the one who can beat Obama.
“Gov. Romney is going to stick to his pro-jobs, pro-growth message, talk about the economy and continue to campaign in states across the country,” Williams said. “We’ve built a campaign that has the resources needed to have the delegates that are required to win the Republican nomination.”
For now, Democrats have had the luxury of sitting back and watching the other party battle it out.
“Four years ago we had a race that went down to June, but it was not nearly as negative as this one,” said Mark Owens, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. “I think its always good when Republicans are fighting each other.”
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