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Republican race is shaping up to be Romney's to lose

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in Clive, Iowa, Jan. 2, 2012.

Chris Carlson/AP

With the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination trading nasty barbs and preparing to do battle next in New Hampshire and South Carolina, front-runner Mitt Romney is basking in a new-found aura of inevitability.

But Newt Gingrich's acid remarks about the former Massachusetts governor on Wednesday suggest Mr. Romney will face an onslaught of attacks as he seeks to wrap up the nomination by the time Florida Republicans vote in their Jan. 31 primary.

"The fact is, three out of four Republicans rejected him," Mr. Gingrich said of Mr. Romney's Tuesday win in the Iowa caucuses with only 25 per cent of the vote. "I find it amazing the news media continues to say he's the most electable Republican when he can't even break out of his own party."

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Indeed, Mr. Romney's photo-finish win over Rick Santorum on Tuesday night exposed key weaknesses in the ex-Massachusetts governor's candidacy that could come back to haunt him in coming primaries. And they could resurface if Mr. Romney does get to face off against President Barack Obama in November.

Mr. Romney's inability to connect with Republicans on a level that rises above a clinical economic pitch could leave all American voters cold in November, especially if a recovery takes hold by then.

Unless the U.S. economy is so far underwater next November that Mr. Obama is doomed from the outset, the presidential election promises to be a cliffhanger. Mr. Romney will need more to run on than his résumé at Bain Capital, which is all he has done until now.

In the race for the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney has narrowed his pitch to a single selling point – namely, that he is the turnaround artist needed to get the economy going.

That may be all he needs to win next week in New Hampshire, where he holds a 25-point lead in the polls in the run-up to the Granite State's GOP primary on Tuesday.

But in a general election, sticking to that narrow focus could be risky. Mr. Santorum, the pious father of seven and ex-Pennsylvania senator who finished eight votes shy of a win in Tuesday's caucuses, showed why.

His speech on Tuesday helped the GOP establishment understand how, without money or organization, Mr. Santorum won the hearts of 25 per cent of Iowa's GOP caucus-goers.

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Mr. Santorum spoke of his Italian-born grandfather who worked in a coal mine, and recalled hovering, as a child, over his coffin, staring at his "enormous" hands.

"And all I could think was, those hands dug freedom for me," he told the crowd, before segueing into an explanation about why his humble roots would allow him to win over working-class voters in November.

"Those are the same people that President Obama talked about who cling to their guns and their Bibles. Thank God they do," he asserted. "They share our values about faith and family. They understand that when the family breaks down, the economy struggles."

Mr. Santorum's 15 minutes will likely soon expire, just as they did for every other tentative alternative to Mr. Romney for the GOP nomination in the past six months.

He has yet to bear the brunt of negative ads or face intense media scrutiny. Given the increasing ugliness of this campaign, Mr. Santorum is bound to get caught up in the nastiness.

What's more, his Senate career, which ended in defeat in 2006, was marked by a rigid social conservatism that ultimately made him too hot to handle for his own constituents. His rivals are already calling him one of the worst pork-barrellers in Congress.

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But juxtaposing his Tuesday night speech with that of Mr. Romney exposes the weakness in the ex-Massachusetts governor's argument – namely its emotional emptiness.

"I will go to work to get America back to work by making America once again the most attractive place in the world for job creators and innovators and investors," Mr. Romney told the crowd in Des Moines. "I'll keep our tax rates competitive."

No doubt, the consultants who drive Mr. Romney's campaign have tested these sentences in focus groups and found them to be effective with an economically scarred electorate.

Still, Americans do not want their leader to act as if he is battery-operated.

Mr. Obama has spent much of his presidency appearing as if he, too, might have a lithium-ion power pack under the hood. But he has the personal narrative and oratorical prowess to step up his campaign game when he needs to.

For now, the Romney campaign sees no need to alter its game plan. So, don't expect to see any tears out of him on the road to Manchester, N.H., à la Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Bland is working for him now. It has enabled him to avoid the gutter into which his principal rivals have slipped.

He left it to a political action committee that supports him to air negative ads against Mr. Gingrich in Iowa. He'll likely use the same tactic against Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and Ron Paul in South Carolina, where Republicans vote Jan. 21.

As long as he has an increasingly unhinged Mr. Paul calling Mr. Gingrich a "chicken hawk," as he did on Wednesday, and Mr. Gingrich spewing venom in all directions, as he does every day, it is hard to see how the über-disciplined Mr. Romney can lose this race.

But that does not mean the Tin Man won't also need a heart to win in November.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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