MISSING MAGIC

02.09.12

Romney Losing His Mojo After Caucus, Primary Losses to Santorum

Rick Santorum’s sweep exposed glaring weaknesses in Mitt Romney’s candidacy. Howard Kurtz on whether the ex-senator can capitalize on conservative qualms about Romney.

Rick Santorum’s dramatic three-state sweep this week may have been a triumph of pluck and perseverance, but it was also something else: a startling rejection of Mitt Romney.

It’s easy to wave away Santorum’s triple triumph in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado as an exercise in symbolism that netted him no delegates. But as a snapshot of the state of the GOP race, it’s a rather dark picture for Romney.

“These results are a serious blow to Romney that crystallized the conservative questions about his bona fides and punctured it,” says Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman. “If your campaign is built on inevitability, a puncture can take you down.”

Ed Rollins, the veteran GOP strategist who briefly ran Michele Bachmann’s campaign, says Romney “has been running for six years and never quite connected. He’s spent no time talking about his years as governor, which is not exactly an all-star four years. He now wants to pretend he’s a right-winger, and it’s just not believable.”

Adds John Feehery, a former House Republican official: “Santorum doesn’t have any organization or money—he’s able to win based on the idea that the base doesn’t like Romney.” Romney “struck a bad chord” with his gaffe about not being concerned about the very poor, says Feehery: “Many conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, actually care about the poor.”

Romney is still the likely nominee, of course, but these and other GOP analysts are saying for the first time that Santorum has a shot. They see him as having eclipsed Newt Gingrich, whose fortunes have sagged since his brief, shining moment in South Carolina.

Given that Romney was coming off solid wins in Florida and Nevada, his vote totals on Tuesday were stunningly weak, even if social conservatives form the backbone of the electorate in the three states.

As Ron Brownstein points out in National Journal, Romney got 25,900 votes in winning the Minnesota caucuses four years ago; this time, in finishing third, he won only 8,090. The same pattern held in the Colorado caucuses, which Romney won last time with 42,218 votes; on Tuesday he finished second with 22,875. And he drew just over a third as many votes in Missouri’s beauty contest as in 2008.

Maybe the results amounted to a giant protest vote. Maybe Romney does poorly when he doesn’t have much time to campaign or when he doesn’t pour money into attack ads. But there may well be something deeper that goes to both style and substance.

Romney comes across as overly scripted, and sometimes aloof, whether he’s hitting his talking points or reciting “America the Beautiful.” He’s a bit ill at ease among average voters. What was striking about his concession speech Tuesday night was that when he talked about his father struggling to make it as a carpenter, he seemed to be speaking from the heart. (Of course, Dad went on to become head of American Motors and Michigan’s governor, so that’s the closest Romney can come to a rags-to-riches narrative.)

And what, at its heart, is Romney’s message, other than that Obama is flailing and the former head of Bain Capital is the man to fix the economy? Romney lacks an animating idea that would bring voters to their feet and faces such complications as the similarities between Obama’s health-care reform and his own in Massachusetts.

“The conservative electorate of 2012 really is hungry for the authentic, Washington-changing candidate,” Fleischer says.

Perhaps that’s why the Romney camp is now going after Santorum as a Beltway insider. Top adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told MSNBC that Santorum and Gingrich are “two peas in a pod—longtime Washington legislators.” And a Romney email blast portrayed Gingrich and Santorum as wild-eyed earmarkers, with such headlines as “Santorum Brought Over $1 Billion in Pork-Barrel Spending Back to Pennsylvania” and “Santorum Voted for the Bridge to Nowhere.”

It’s no accident that Santorum, a favorite of religious conservatives, used his Tuesday-night speech to trumpet his opposition to the White House rule requiring Catholic organizations to offer contraception in health-insurance plans—an issue that has been heating up in recent days.

“If he becomes the champion of the conservative Catholic/Christian coalition, he could be very credible,” says Rollins. “He’s a tough debater. There are no liabilities to him. He’s every bit as knowledgeable as Gingrich, though not as articulate. He’s more disciplined in his message. He is the true-blue Catholic; Gingrich is a convert who’s had multiple marriages.”

Santorum “knows the issues better than Romney does,” Feehery says. “He’s got a better message and is more consistent.” One political weakness, says Feehery, is that Santorum is not a Tea Party favorite: “He’s a big-government conservative, a traditional Republican—a George W. Bush compassionate conservative.”

“Santorum doesn’t have any organization or money—he’s able to win based on the idea that the base doesn’t like Romney.”

Santorum’s ability to remain in the first tier depends in part on whether his big night triggers a flood of donations, so he doesn’t get buried in Michigan or Arizona by millions in negative ads. One question is the extent to which Wyoming financier Foster Friess, who has been bankrolling Santorum’s super PAC (as well as The Daily Caller), is willing to open his checkbook.

It may turn out that Santorum is only the latest in a series of Not-Romneys—Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich—who flash across the political landscape before burning out. But if Santorum can eclipse Gingrich and get Romney one-on-one, as in Missouri, or if they alternate tackling the frontrunner in states where each man is the strongest, this race isn’t over by a long shot.