With Republican primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. today, front-runner Mitt Romney is poised to win a hat-trick and cement recent gains, but can he change the script – and the doubts over his candidacy – for good this time?
“The right thing for us, I think, is to get a nominee as soon as we can and be able to focus on Barack Obama,” Mr. Romney told Fox News.
Rather than energizing the Republican party and producing a battle-tested nominee, the long drawn out leadership race has only highlighted deep divisions in the GOP and raised doubts about gaffe-prone front-runner who struggles to connect with voters.
Asked by a Baltimore radio host about her husband sometimes looking “stiff” on the campaign trail, Ann Romney said, “Well, you know, I guess we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out because he is not!”
Mr. Romney has strong leads in each of today’s state primaries, and in Wisconsin, which is the closest primary race, he holds a 7 per cent lead over his closest rival Rick Santorum.
The delegates math is daunting for his rivals: Mr. Romney has 572 delegates, followed by Mr. Santorum with 272, Newt Gingrich with 135 and Ron Paul with 51.
With 95 delegates at stake in Tuesday’s contests, and given that Mr. Santorum is not on the ballot in Washington, D.C., Mr. Romney will only add to his insurmountable lead as his campaign aims for the magic number of 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
But the Republican leadership contest has been about massive Republican swings over the Romney candidacy.
Mr. Romney’s inability to win any of the primaries in the southern states, combined with razor-thin wins in the key battleground state of Ohio and his own home state of Michigan, has lead many in the GOP grassroots to openly question whether he is, in fact, the best Republican candidate to take on Barack Obama in November.
But key endorsements in the last week from establishment Republicans such as President George Bush Sr., former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Senator and GOP superstar Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Congressman and House of Representatives budget committee chairman Paul Ryan, have given the Romney campaign an air of inevitability – once again.
No doubt there has been a dialling-down when it comes to the Republican party’s anxiety over Mr. Romney’s candidacy. Talk of the Romney campaign being unable to clinch the nomination before the last contest in June, forcing a brokered convention in August, is not as intense as it was a month ago.
But try telling that to Mr. Santorum.
“I would argue even if it ends up in a convention, that’s a positive thing for the Republican Party, that’s a positive thing for activating and energizing our folks heading into this fall election,” Mr. Santorum told reporters on Monday.
Newt Gingrich, a one-time serious challenger to Mr. Romney’s front-runner status, has dramatically downsized his national campaign after his ‘southern’ strategy, focusing only on primaries in southern states, produced a single win: his home state of Georgia.
Now, Mr. Gingrich’s strategy is to wait in the wings in case something dramatic happens.
“Either Romney will self destruct, or Romney will be the nominee,” Mr. Gingrich told a group of supporters this week over lunch. “Nobody is going to beat him head-to-head because you can’t compete with the weight of his money.”
The latest attack ad against Mitt Romney comes from the Santorum campaign. The ad starts out looking like an attack on President Obama but ends on a sharp note that Mr. Santorum has developed for months: that Mr. Romney’s positions in the past on health care, abortion, Wall Street bailouts, and climate change have been identical to Mr. Obama’s positions.
Mr. Santorum will keep hammering away at the Romney candidacy and continue arguing that the party needs a ‘true conservative’ to take on Mr. Obama.
The Pennsylvania primary on April 24 gives Mr. Santorum a key moment to disrupt the Romney campaign narrative once again.
Winning Pennsylvania, a key battleground state critical to winning the White House in November, would give the Santorum campaign a strong argument that it can appeal to blue collar and middle class voters in a way that Mr. Romney has been unable to.
It would also trigger another panic in the GOP establishment, indicating that the race will carry on in to May and perhaps beyond.
The latest polling, however, suggests that, after enjoying a 14 per cent lead over Mr. Romney in Pennsylvania in last month’s voter surveys, the race there has tightened dramatically. Mr. Santorum’s lead is now a mere six per cent.