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Roll Call

The Hoopla Surrounding Romney’s Electability

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Rick Santorum (above) swept all three Republican presidential voting contests Tuesday night in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, but the campaign is still Mitt Romney’s to lose.

For all the hoopla over former Sen. Rick Santorums (Pa.) Tuesday sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri (and the breathless coverage over at CNN on Tuesday night was a great example of hype trumping serious analysis), the dynamics of the Republican presidential race have changed little. While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems unable to actually win the nomination, it is still awfully difficult to see him losing it.

As others have already noted, Santorum becomes relevant again, which is a bigger problem for former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) than it is for Romney. Two conservatives will still divide the anti-Romney vote, making him look stronger than he really is.

Of course, while Romney remains the favorite to win his partys nomination, his strategists cant afford to delude themselves about their candidates appeal. The Romney campaigns observation in a pre-primary memo that no delegates were selected on Tuesday is both accurate and totally irrelevant.

The early primaries and contests arent really about delegates as much as they are about credibility and momentum. Iowas winner, as reported by the media, was the candidate who finished first in a non-binding presidential preference vote not a single delegate was selected on Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary allocated a mere 12 delegates to the national convention, hardly a windfall for anyone.

Romney is trying to establish himself as the inevitable nominee, and losses, even in caucuses and primaries that involve no delegates, hurt his effort by keeping conservatives energized and forcing his campaign to fight each and every day to make sure neither Gingrich nor Santorum establish momentum in the contest.

That said, some of the analysis after Santorums showing on Tuesday is just plain silly.

Jon Ward, a senior political reporter at the Huffington Post, led his post-primary piece with the assertion that Romneys weak showing and it was weak was another harsh blow undermining his argument that he is the strongest Republican candidate for president.

Ive heard this argument before, and I think its, well, nuts.

In fact, Romneys problems in the Missouri and South Carolina primaries, as well as in the Iowa and Minnesota caucuses, are precisely why he is, to use Wards words, the strongest Republican candidate for president.

Romney has plenty of weaknesses, but they are most pronounced in the race for the GOP nomination, not in the general election.

The folks over at CNN repeatedly noted on Tuesday night that Romney was losing states that he won handily four years ago, apparently confused about what that meant. They didnt understand that four years ago conservatives were so desperate to stop Sen. John McCain that they embraced Romney as the conservative alternative to the Arizonan. This time, Romney is viewed as a moderate by those very same voters, who are turning either to Gingrich or Santorum as the alternative to Romney. This isnt brain surgery.

If you understand that (and Id figure anyone doing analysis on television should), then you should understand that in most states Romney starts with the 08 McCain vote, not with the 08 Romney vote. Hes grown that in many states, but often not by a lot. Of course, that doesnt apply to Nevada or other Mormon-heavy states.

Romneys electability is an argument about the general election, not the nomination. He is still trying to establish that inevitability argument about the nomination, and Tuesdays results certainly undermine his ability to do that.

Romney hasnt been able to wrap up the Republican nomination quickly because he is doing poorly with a number of demographic groups, particularly rural voters, very conservative voters and evangelical Christians. Those problems werent solved in Nevada. Its just that other variables, such as Romneys Mormonism, overrode many of the other demographic variables.

His greatest strength so far has been in urban and suburban areas, among older voters, among less religious voters and among self-described moderates and somewhat conservative voters. Hes won three states so far: New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

Youd think that anyone looking at this picture would understand that the former Massachusetts governor has done best among those voters groups and in those states that will pick the next president.

Its noteworthy that Gingrich can win South Carolina or that Santorum can win lightly attended caucuses in two swing states because he is seen as the true conservative, but those voters wont pick the next occupant of the White House.

Romney is likely to win rural America, conservative America and religious America against President Barack Obama, so his weakness in those constituencies in the GOP primaries doesnt affect his electability argument at all.

Gingrich and Santorum arent likely to be able to win the very voters who have been picking presidents recently, though they certainly can whip their partys most conservative voters into a frenzy.

Tuesday was indeed a bad night for Romney. He had hoped to win one or two of those contests, and losing all three is likely to prolong the GOP race and make it more difficult for him to convince unenthusiastic conservatives that, as the inevitable nominee, they ought to line up behind him sooner rather than later.

But Romney still has the best national campaign and the most money, and the multicandidate field and the fields makeup helps him.

Romney is the same candidate he was in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. He did better in a couple of debates, but he is still, well, Romney. Tuesdays defeats told us little new about the dynamics of the race or the electability argument.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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