After a week in which he lost contests in three states and had taken a severe beating about his ability to close the deal with Republicans, Mitt Romney stopped the bleeding on Saturday with victories in the non-binding Maine caucus and the CPAC straw poll. Romney has tremendous advantages over his rivals and must still be considered the overwhelming favorite for the GOP presidential nomination. If his shocking losses to Rick Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri demolished the idea that he would easily cruise through the next weeks and months, then Maine and CPAC were reminders the former Massachusetts governor still has the money and the organization to bulldoze his way through some relatively insignificant contests.
But no one should be deceived by Romney’s ability to squeak out wins in a non-binding caucus (where he was nearly beaten by libertarian outlier Ron Paul) that attracted few Republican voters and a straw poll that was more a measure of the competence of the candidate’s organization. The frontrunner is still confronted with some serious problems that complicate his effort to nail down the nomination and to win the general election. The Republican base is still not sold on him, and his struggles to win his party and occasional gaffes are also eroding the notion that he is the most electable Republican.
The first of these problems is Santorum’s surge is turning out to be more than a one-day story. Santorum will provide a real challenge to Romney in Michigan and Arizona later this month, and his rise in the polls will enable him to raise enough money to compete there. Santorum is not invulnerable to criticism, but he will not be as easy for Romney to demolish with negative ads as Newt Gingrich has been.
Second, Gingrich’s fade from contention is another source of worry. Romney’s rise to the top of the GOP field was only made possible by the division among conservatives. Though Gingrich’s ego will probably prevent him from dropping out, if the race becomes a two-man battle between Romney and Santorum, that could prove troublesome.
Third is the fact that a long drawn out battle for the nomination will not strengthen Romney or his party. There’s been a lot of happy talk from some Republicans about the benefits of such a knock-down, drag-out fight, but most of them are just saying that because they are hoping such a scenario is the only way to envision Romney being defeated. But the comparisons between the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton dustup in 2008 are way off the mark. The negative attacks launched on those two were beanbag when compared to the things the Republicans are saying about each other. Obama emerged strengthened from the Democratic primaries chiefly because he was protected by a quiescent national press corps that refused to follow-up on questions about his background and influences. By contrast, the press and the Democrats will use the attacks on Romney from both the left and right to prepare for an even nastier assault on him in the fall.
The decline in Romney’s head-to-head poll match-ups with Obama provides evidence that gaffes like his remark about the poor as well as the attacks on his income and business career by Gingrich have taken a toll on his appeal. Given the real animus against Romney from Gingrich and many on the right, the GOP trashing of the man who is still the likely nominee will impact his ability to rally the base and win over independents.
Fourth is that low turnout in some of this year’s caucuses and primaries are a worrisome sign for Republicans. Despite the ardent desire of most Republicans to defeat Barack Obama, there’s no denying dissatisfaction with the field of candidates is causing fewer of them to show up and vote. Romney’s people say that won’t be a problem in November as Obama will mobilize Republicans for him. There’s some truth to that, but that doesn’t mean the GOP shouldn’t be worried about Romney’s appeal.
So while Romney can take some satisfaction in the fact that his problems didn’t get worse on Saturday and can even claim his two victories set him back on the path to the nomination, there are still plenty of reasons for his supporters to be concerned. He needs to spend the next two weeks before for the next round of primaries focusing on a series of challenges that can’t be ignored.