Mitt Romney seeks to stem rise of Rick Santorum
Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney is trying to hold down a surging Rick Santorum ahead of crucial Michigan and Arizona primaries Tuesday in a race that has become more suspenseful than pundits predicted.
February 28 was supposed to be the day Mitt Romney could breathe easy.
Although he’s struggled to secure his frontrunner status in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, the former Massachusetts governor has long been considered the favourite in Tuesday's Michigan and Arizona primaries.
But those races have shaped up to be far more suspenseful than pundits have expected. Polls now show Romney’s main rival, Rick Santorum, running neck-and-neck with him in Romney’s own home state of Michigan, and pulling to within striking distance in Arizona, too.
Santorum’s latest surge, coupled with Romney’s inability to maintain momentum, point to the likelihood of a protracted and acrimonious Republican primary season that could damage the party’s chances of unseating President Barack Obama in the fall.
A Santorum win in Michigan, in particular, would be a slap in the face for Romney. He grew up in the Midwestern state, where his father was governor from 1963 to 1969, and despite having lost his bid for the Republican nomination in 2008, he won the state’s primary against eventual nominee John McCain. Anything less than a decisive victory this time would therefore be seen by press and party leaders alike as a sign that Romney’s path to the nomination is far from “inevitable”, as it has been portrayed.
Competing for ‘most trustworthy conservative’ crown
Santorum, a staunch social conservative and former Pennsylvania senator, has been riding high in the polls since his surprise win in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and Missouri primary on February 7. Despite what has been qualified as a middling debate performance last week, his campaign in a largely working-class Michigan has indeed been stronger than anticipated: his stump speeches have been sprinkled with populist references to his own modest upbringing as the grandson of a coalminer, coupled with jabs at Romney’s multimillion-dollar fortune and tenure as head of a private equity firm.
As Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the right-leaning public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute, noted, “Santorum seems to connect more easily with blue collar voters than Romney does, and that is helping him.”
Romney, meanwhile, has struggled to earn the trust of these voters, and has been mocked by commentators and adversaries alike for his habit of making verbal gaffes that draw attention to his wealth. He most recently remarked on the campaign trail, for example, that his wife, Ann, “drives a couple of Cadillacs”.
Santorum is benefitting from the contrast with Romney in other ways, too. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote, “Santorum isn’t responsible for a health care bill that looks an awful lot like ‘Obamacare’, and he doesn’t have a long list of social-issue flip-flops in his past. This makes his candidacy a plausible rallying point for the voters who previously turned [Michele] Bachmann and [Herman] Cain and…Rick Perry into conservative flavors of the month.”
In order to stem Santorum’s rise in the countdown to the Michigan and Arizona primaries, Romney has slammed his rival’s record, trying to paint him as a Washington insider with a political history that is not nearly as conservative as Santorum claims it is. He has pointed to Santorum’s public support for the 1996 presidential bid of pro-choice, then-Republican former Senator Arlen Specter, who later became a Democrat. He has also taken Santorum to task for voting with Senate Democrats and some Republicans to finance the non-profit organisation Planned Parenthood, whose health services include providing contraception and abortions.
Santorum has defended himself by arguing that being a US senator entails sacrificing “personal moral objections” in order to compromise with the other party and get things done. Still, Romney’s recent focus on Santorum’s record has made a chink in the candidate’s conservative armour, and served as a reminder of the difficulty of running for the White House as a longtime member of Congress, the least popular of America’s political institutions.
Santorum has scoffed at Romney’s claims, telling a gathering of Republicans in Michigan on Saturday: “It is absolutely laughable to have a liberal governor of Massachusetts suggest that I am not a conservative….He repeatedly gets up and says all these things that he didn’t do that he did do. Folks, this is an issue of trust.”
‘Santorum would have difficulty in general election’
Meanwhile, Romney is trailing both Santorum and Newt Gingrich in polls of several Southern states set to vote on Super Tuesday, the 10-state sweepstakes on March 6 – a fact which makes a strong showing in Michigan and Arizona even more crucial for him.
Many experts think that Romney's defeat of Santorum – who has attracted recent attention for his harshly-worded, religion-infused policy explanations – is crucial not just for Romney but also for the entire party and its hopes of winning back the White House. “I think Santorum would have real difficulty with independents in a general election, as they tend to be more conservative on economic issues and more liberal on social issues,” assessed Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute. “Romney has done best thus far among the groups and states that will pick the next president, so if he can make it to the general, it will be a competitive race.”
For the time being, though, the beneficiary of what looks to be a drawn-out fight for the Republican presidential nomination is undoubtedly Obama. Recent polls show the president, buoyed by signs of an improving economy, with comfortable leads in hypothetical match-ups against either of his main rivals.