It seems like every time I declare Mitt Romney to be in the catbird seat, he does everything in his power to disprove me. But last night, the former Massachusetts governor outdid himself, having been swept by Rick Santorum in contests in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado. And it isn’t simply the fact that Romney lost; it’s the magnitude of his losses. Governor Romney finished third in Minnesota with 17 percent of the vote total, behind both Ron Paul (27 percent) and Santorum (45 percent). In Missouri, Romney lost to Santorum by a staggering 30 points (55 percent v. 25 percent). And in Colorado, a state Romney won in 2008 with more than 60 percent of the vote, Santorum bested him by five points (40 percent v. 35 percent).
The odds of winning the nomination are very much in Romney’s favor, in part because Newt Gingrich is doing his nemesis the favor of hanging around, with the result (potentially) of denying Santorum the mano-a-mano contest with Romney he needs. On the other hand, Santorum might well supplant Gingrich as the conservative alternative whether Gingrich stays or leaves the race. Many scales have fallen from many eyes in recent days, and it’s becoming obvious to more and more GOP voters that Rick Santorum is a far stronger (and more reliably conservative) candidate than Newt Gingrich. If Santorum were to knock off Romney in Michigan, then the trajectory of this race could change in a hurry.
Now a word about both Romney and Santorum.
It’s not a state secret that Romney has not yet been able to make the sale with the conservative base of his party. The resistance to him isn’t an intense dislike, at least from most on the right. It’s more of a wariness, a lack of comfort, a sense the former Massachusetts governor isn’t in his heart a true or reliable conservative. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s a real challenge for Mitt Romney to overcome — and as we saw last night, he’s far from overcoming it.
But there appears to be more to it than that. Governor Romney reassures many GOP voters, but he inspires few of them. And as he surely must know, politics is, at least in large part, about winning people’s allegiance and loyalty. They want to believe they are part of more than a campaign; they want to believe they are part of a great cause. And most people right now can’t tell you what great cause the Romney campaign represents.
It’s too easy for commentators to pile on candidates after a bad showing, as Romney experienced last night, and forget their strengths, of which Romney has many. He’s a fine, and at times a first-rate, debater. He’s shown fluency when it comes to the issues. He’s a man of personal decency and moderate temperament. He’s shown the capacity to lift his game when necessary. And he’s disciplined and focused. But right now there’s a weakness at the core of the campaign, and the Romney team would be wise to understand what that is.
It would of course be a huge error to try to turn Romney into someone he’s not. What he needs to do is to build a compelling narrative around his genuine strengths. I’ve written before the great challenge facing America today is reforming public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century. Our health care and entitlement system, tax code, schools, infrastructure, immigration policies, and regulatory regime are outdated, worn down, and terribly out of touch with the needs of our time. This has impeded economic growth, impaired the creation of human capital, and put us on the path toward an unprecedented fiscal crisis. Each of these public institutions needs to be improved and modernized, requiring structural reforms on a large scale. It seems to me that Romney, by virtue of his experience and skill sets, can make the case he’s the person best equipped to lead this effort.
Now a word about my former Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Rick Santorum. Rick has shown impressive resilience, having won over voters almost literally one at a time. He’s very intelligent and well-informed; he’s mostly stayed clear of the Romney v. Gingrich fight, focusing on the issues rather than personal foibles of the other candidates; and he’s shown the ability to be an outstanding prosecutor for his case (as when he’s gone after RomneyCare). Santorum can also claim to be a “conviction politician,” including when those convictions were politically costly.
What Santorum has also done, and probably hasn’t received enough credit for doing, is to recalibrate his tone. At points early on during this campaign, he came across as too intense, too cock-sure, too impatient and righteous in his zeal. Those things, it’s important to say, were the result of a man of deep convictions and an admirable fearlessness. But it at times made him unsympathetic and not easy to embrace. But that began to change right around December, and he’s now projected a warmth and human quality that’s quite appealing. Even if Santorum doesn’t win the GOP nomination, he’s reestablished himself as an important and influential figure within conservatism.
For now, though, this primary race – at times fascinating, volatile, engaging and dispiriting –continues. And whoever emerges victorious will have a slightly better than even shot at becoming America’s 45th president.