After Super Tuesday, all eyes are on Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who hung on by his fingernails to eke out a victory in Ohio and win five other GOP primaries. But Rick Santorum’s performance last night is worth a careful look as well because the nomination is shaping up as a battle between social issues and fiscal policy.
Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, was handed two golden opportunities to topple his chief competitor in major industrial states, Ohio and Michigan. In both cases, Santorum blew substantial, double-digit leads in the polls heading into the final weekend of campaigning.
While Santorum shrewdly targeted Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado last month, sloppy campaign work and inadequate resources kept Santorum off the ballot in Virginia – where he might have won or done remarkably well, since Rep. Ron Paul of Texas ended up with 40 percent of that vote. Santorum also failed to qualify for 16 of the 66 delegates that were up for grabs in Ohio.
Moreover, Santorum lost to Romney in some factory towns, despite his blue-collar pedigree. And Santorum, a conservative Catholic who is outspoken about faith-based issues, lost Catholic voters by a wide margin in Ohio on Tuesday, potentially a key factor that allowed Mitt Romney to squeak out the narrowest of victories overall in the state. According to CNN’s exit polls, Romney took 43 percent of Ohio Catholics, compared to 31 percent for Santorum.
Romney’s focus on jobs and the economy once again trumped Santorum’s cultural warfare message and relentless hammering on Romney for his complicity in passing health care reform in Massachusetts with an individual mandate that became a model of sorts for the reviled Obama health care law. Romney, the former Bain Capital equity investment executive, argues that he is better equipped than his rivals or President Obama to manage the slowly recovering economy and bring down the deficit.
Exit polls yesterday confirmed that the economy is foremost in the minds of many voters. In Ohio, where unemployment is just below the national average and the auto industry is beginning to make a comeback, more than half of the Republican voters consider the economy the top issue, while a quarter of voters pointed to the budget deficit. Among voters in Georgia, where unemployment is 9.4 percent, six in ten said they were most concerned about the economy and jobs.
Romney picked up 216 delegates last night, putting him far in front of the pack with a total of 415 – or more than a third of what he needs to wrap up the nomination. By comparison, Santorum ended the night with 179 delegates, or 16 percent of what he would need to win the nomination, while Gingrich had 105 delegates or 9 percent of what is needed. Paul, who has yet to win a state, has garnered 47 delegates.
Charles Black, a veteran consultant and campaign adviser to Romney, told MSNBC today,
“What Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have to begin to explain is how they’re going to win more states than Romney and win by huge margins,” Black said. “Rick Santorum has to get like 60 percent of the vote in some of these proportional states to ever catch up...with the commanding lead that Gov. Romney has. Governor Romney is on a winning streak, and he has command of this race.”
With Santorum, Gingrich and Paul all vowing to stay in the race all the way to the convention this August in Tampa, they will continue to carve up the conservative anti-Romney vote, with none of them able to overtake the former Massachusetts governor. Try though they may, their political growth potential is stunted by the others staying in the race. In Ohio, for example, with Gingrich out of the race, Santorum might have won with more than 50 percent of the vote, instead of losing to Romney, 38 percent to 37 percent. Santorum and his supporters renewed their call today for Gingrich to step aside and allow Santorum to carry the conservative banner against Romney, but Gingrich made it clear last night he was in the race to stay.
Emboldened by his Georgia victory, Gingrich is turning his sights to other southern targets, including Mississippi and Alabama. “Remember when it was Tim Pawlenty who was going to crowd me out?” Gingrich told a crowd in suburban Atlanta. “And remember then it was Michele Bachmann? Then it was our good friend Herman Cain, the first time? And then for a brief moment, it was Donald Trump – almost. And then it was our good friend Rick Perry, then it was Herman Cain the second time, and now it’s Santorum.” He added, “It’s all right. There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I am the tortoise. I just take one step at a time.”
Given the brutal campaigning and backbiting, some conservative pundits including George Will say Republicans might be wise to simply write off the presidential contest as hopeless and focus more on picking up seats in the House and Senate. Meanwhile, President Obama and Democratic strategists seem increasingly confident amid an improving economy and rising presidential approval numbers that Obama will romp to victory in November.