Another prominent Republican climbed aboard Mitt Romney’s bandwagon Monday, as former senator Rick Santorum’s bid for the nomination continues to tank. Former senator and attorney general John Ashcroft of Missouri came out for Romney one day before the Super Tuesday primaries in Ohio and nine other states in what appears to be a coordinated effort by senior Republicans to end the acrimonious and politically destructive GOP presidential campaign.
“After working with [Mitt Romney] on the 2002 Winter Olympics, I know that he is deeply committed to serving our country and protecting its citizens, and I look forward to his counsel over the coming months,” said Ashcroft in a statement. “I admire Mitt’s record of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, and defense of traditional values,” added Ashcroft.
With polls showing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, regaining the lead nationally, a handful of prominent conservative Republicans – most notably House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma – came out for Romney over the weekend. Ron Bonjean, a Washington political strategist and former Republican congressional aide, said the fresh round of endorsements appears to be well coordinated by the GOP and the Romney camp on the eve of the crucial Super Tuesday contests. With 66 delegates at stake, Ohio is the biggest prize and looms as a must-win state for both Romney and Santorum.
“The GOP establishment is trying to give Romney a push over the top to convince voters in Ohio that he is the best candidate that we can elect to take on President Obama,” Bonjean told The Fiscal Times today. “I think they put their cards on the table for Romney because the polling was trending Romney’s way, and it is very tight.”
“Ohio can be seen as a turning point for the Romney campaign,” he added. “They can say, ‘Look, we’ve been able to get Michigan and Ohio, we’re competing in battleground, Rust Belt-type states,’ in an attempt to create a snowball-type effect.”
Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., told MSNBC today, “I think at the end of the day it will be a race between Obama and Romney, and it’s going to be on what are the conditions of the country, what are gas prices, what’s happening in the Middle East.”
“These are macro factors that are going to shape the electorate,” Davis said. “Romney is as well poised as anybody I think to take advantage of the problems that the Obama administration has faced. . . He has the persona of a leader. He may have waffled along the way, he may have not connected with the average voter the way you would like the perfect candidate to do, but people see him as an acceptable alternative to the Obama administration, and that’s his great strength.”
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and House member, has argued that he is the purest conservative in the pack and can win in swing states like Ohio because of his blue-collar roots and his focus on the manufacturing sector. Ohio also seemed tailor made for Santorum because of its large concentration of Evangelical Christians, who have been attracted to his social conservative messages.
But Santorum made a series of political blunders that led to his narrow loss to Romney in Michigan a week ago and have hurt his prospects in Ohio. His biggest mistake: his preoccupation with issues of contraception and separation of church and state, and calling Obama a “snob” for stressing the importance of a college education – while downplaying economic issues.
“I think it’s a combination of Romney staying on message [on the economy and jobs] for the past week and Santorum trying to make up for some mistakes he made in Michigan,” Bonjean said in explaining Santorum’s drop in the polls. “Santorum got off message; Romney stayed on message.”
Santorum was cautious on Fox News Sunday by declining to predict that he would carry Ohio on Tuesday, saying only that he expects to do “very well.” He also argued that he was at a disadvantage because Newt Gingrich was drawing a lot of conservative support away from him. “It’s always harder when you’ve got two conservative candidates out there running in the race,” said Santorum. “If you continue to combine the votes that Congressman Gingrich and I get, we’re doing pretty well.”
But Gingrich appears to be in no hurry to step aside for Santorum. And if, as expected, he wins in his home state of Georgia tomorrow, the former speaker – whose campaign is being bankrolled by billionaire Sheldon Adelson – is likely to hang in there for some time to come.
A recent NBC News-Marist survey showed that Santorum had blown a double digit lead over Romney in Ohio, and that the former senator is now ahead by only two percentage points, 34 percent to 32 percent — a statistical dead heat. Should Romney overtake Santorum, as he did in Michigan a week ago, it Santorum support will continue to falter.
Moreover, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll just out found that Romney has regained the lead nationally in the Republican presidential contest thanks in part to new support from conservatives. Romney hasn’t led the Journal poll since November, but now leads it, with 38 percent to Santorum’s 32 percent and 13 percent each for former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
However, the poll shows that the highly contentious nature of the GOP primary contest is taking its toll within the party, even among the most enthusiastic Republican voters, and more generally is hurting the party’s chance of taking back the White House in November. In a head-to-head matchup with Obama, Romney would lose, 44 percent to 50 percent, while Santorum and Gingrich would do even worse.
Cantor and Coburn are among the most prominent conservatives in Congress, and their backing is certain to help Romney make the case that he is beginning to win over the support of conservatives who have long voiced displeasure with his stands on health care reform, abortion, spending and other important issues.
Cantor said on NBC's "Meet the Press" over the weekend that Romney had put forth the best plan for the economy and job growth, which will be the key issue in the November election. "Mitt is the only one in the race who knows how to create jobs,” Cantor said. “He is the only one who’s put forward a bold plan to do that.” He added, “I think our race and our system allow anyone to participate, but I do believe Romney will be the nominee and will win.”