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Republican Voters Still Think About the Ones Who Got Away

As Mitt Romney prepares to accomplish the unprecedented feat of winning both the Republican Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary today, here are some poll numbers to keep in mind. As Peter wrote, Romney is now the only candidate viewed as “acceptable” by the majority of Republican voters, and he leads among self-proclaimed conservative voters on acceptability. He is also seen as the most electable of the Republican candidates, and leads President Obama by two points in a general election matchup, according to a new CBS poll.

Electable, acceptable – by all practical measurements, Romney is the reasonable candidate to choose. But Republican voters still can’t stop thinking about the ones who got away:

The survey finds that 58 percent of Republican primary voters want more presidential choices, while just 37 percent say they are satisfied with the current field. The percentage of Republican primary voters that wants more choices has increased 12 percentage points since October…

It’s mathematically possible for another candidate to enter the race as late as early February and still win enough delegates to take the nomination, though some deadlines for candidates to get on state ballots have already passed, including those in delegate-rich Virginia and Illinois.

Voters, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, seldom end up with the candidates of their dreams. The GOP electorate recently had to put up with Bob Dole and John McCain, who aren’t exactly electrifying figures. Democrats have had it even worse – they were saddled with the pedantic Al Gore and blowhard John Kerry before getting their fantasy candidate Barack Obama. In that regard, Romney doesn’t buck the trend; he is the trend.

But a lot of dissatisfaction with Romney may stem from the idea that this election was going to be different. Obamacare, the economic crisis, the looming Iranian threat, and the mounting debt all combine to present an historic challenge. We’ve been told by conservative pundits that the country is careening full-speed ahead toward a cliff, and another four years of Obama will mean certain destruction. Hyperbole? Maybe. But any way you look at it, the stakes are high.

This election was also supposed to be about vindication. After the stinging loss of 2008, the conservative movement failed to shrivel away and die as predicted by liberal critics. Instead, we saw a resurgence of free-market populism in the form of the Tea Party, and the rise of new conservative icons like Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. The significance of the 2012 election isn’t just about the threat of another four years of Obama; it’s also about the knowledge that conservatives have a new crop of leaders who could rise to meet our current challenges.

But for whatever reason, the stars didn’t align. Conservatives now find themselves on track to nominate an acceptable but mediocre candidate, one they rejected in 2008. And while it may be mathematically possible for another candidate to jump in at this point, it’s way too late from a practical standpoint. Romney’s probably the best option Republicans have for a victory in November. But he may never live up to the high hopes conservatives had for this election, or for themselves.


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