Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mitt's bad day

On yesterday’s date in 2008, Mitt Romney abandoned his quest for the Republican nomination. Last night, Romney may well have wished he’d done the same thing this year.

The inevitable one, the candidate who many in the chattering class and in the Republican party still insist is the one to beat for the nomination, got served. Schooled. Politically punk’d in three states. When the results from caucuses and primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri were in, the former Massachusetts governor was handed a serious defeat in three acts, losing all three to a candidate that had fallen off the radar for the media and everyone else.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, this campaign’s reigning king of retail politics, had won all three contests, effectively resetting the Republican race. Again.

“Inevitable candidates don’t have nights like this,” Steve Kornacki of Salon said on MSNBC.

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These were no skin-of-the-teeth victories. In the Missouri primary, Santorum crushed Romney by almost 30 points (51 percent to 23 percent). Texas Rep. Ron (LibertyLibertyLiberty) Paul placed a distant third. Newt Gingrich inexplicably failed to get on the ballot altogether. It got worse in Minnesota. Santorum notched 45 percent, Paul placed second (27 percent) and Romney limped in with 17 percent support in the state’s nonbinding caucus. Gingrich reoccupied familiar territory in fourth place (11 percent).

In the closest contest of the night, the Colorado caucus, Santorum bested Romney, 40 percent to 35 percent, with Gingrich and Paul in third and fourth place, respectively.

Justifiably puffed up by his stunning trifecta, Santorum appeared at a victory rally in St. Charles, Mo., and made a full-throated gauntlet throwdown to his real opponent. “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t stand here tonight to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the alternative to Barack Obama.”

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The alarm bells are going for some in the conservative brain trust. “It was a huge night for [Santorum],” said Steve Schmidt, former McCain 2008 campaign strategist and now an MSNBC analyst. “It starts to collapse the inevitability storyline around Mitt Romney.”

Schmidt was half right. That Romney storyline is collapsing, but that process didn’t begin last night. It started months ago, with towering missteps from the candidate; a series of policy flip-flops; a gradual but steady improvement in the economy he presumes to rescue; and the dogged and personal door-to-door retail ground game Santorum has been playing since before his win in Iowa. Now Romney faces the prospects of coming to the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention this weekend with the smell of a loser, forced to pivot away from the economy, compelled to confront the frailties of a campaign that was a one-trick pony from the jump.

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Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota who abandoned his quest for the White House last year and who since signed on as Romney’s deputy campaign manager, tried to spin the three losses as no big deal. He took the expected approach on “Piers Morgan Tonight” on CNN.

“They were smaller turnout states, they were nonbinding states, so I don’t think they change fundamentally the trajectory or the direction of the election,” Pawlenty said tonight.

“In cases like Minnesota, the small turnout traditionally means that caucus attendees gravitate toward the candidate who’s perceived to be the most conservative. That presents a more challenging environment for Mitt Romney, as they turned, apparently, to Rick Santorum tonight.”

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But sorry, T-Paw, all of that comes across like an excuse masquerading as an explanation. At this point in the campaign, if someone purports to be the frontrunner, he or she begins to see an acclimation of support starting to build, and build consistently.

All rationalizations aside — it’s just a caucus, they’re nonbinding, this was a beauty contest, no delegates were awarded, blah blah blah — there are some contests a frontrunner is supposed to win, in spite of their value in the overall metrics of the outcome. If you’re really the frontrunner.

No less a conservative partisan than Dick Armey, former House Speaker and one of the progenitors of the Tea Party movement, calls that status for Romney into question. “Clearly there is no front-runner in the field right now,” Armey told The New York Times. “I guarantee if Romney had come in first, he would have said those three contests are the most important in the country.”

If a small turnout “means that caucus attendees gravitate toward the candidate who’s perceived to be the most conservative,” why wasn’t that candidate Mitt Romney? The people of at least some of the states that just caucused could have backed Romney on that basis, but they didn’t. If caucuses are the canaries in the coal mine, if they in any way point to a bigger trend of voter sentiment that’s coming, Romney’s in trouble.

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That trouble’s even more obvious in a campaign-by-campaign comparison. In each of the three states that caucused yesterday, Romney’s 2012 totals were worst than he recorded in 2008. In Colorado four years ago, Romney won in a landslide with 60 percent of the vote. This year, 35 percent. In Minnesota 2008: 41 percent; this year, just 17 percent.

Team Romney has other challenges, too. A Washington Post/ABC News poll on who voters trust to protect the middle class finds President Obama handily outpointing Romney, 56 percent to 37 percent. That’s likely to be an issue for the rest of the primary season, and a disparity hard to overcome in the general.

Romney’s next obstacle is this weekend’s CPAC convention, where he’ll attempt to establish his conservative bona fides for an audience of probable skeptics. The candidate seemed to grasp what’s ahead of him when he talked to the media today. “There’s no such thing as coronation in presidential politics,” he said. Last night’s events would indicate he doesn’t know how right he is.

Image credits: Romney top, caucus result snapshots: The Huffington Post. Santorum, CNN election result image: CNN.

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