So who is the real Etch-A-Sketch candidate, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum? For sure, it will be a long time before Romney lives down the damaging gaffe of a top adviser who said he intends to hit the restart button after the primary and use different tactics and issues against President Obama. “It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and we start all over again,” he said. Eric Fehrnstrom’s quip validated criticism on the left and right that Romney is a phony conservative who has no core beliefs except the need to win.
But what can be said of Santorum, the angry conservative former senator and Washington operative who now on almost a daily basis is obliged to walk back ill-advised and just plain loopy pronouncements – further fueling doubts about his temperament and judgment to serve in the highest post in the land.
Last week, Santorum was forced to retract a totally off the wall comment to supporters in Illinois. "I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates.” Say what? To be charitable, Santorum was probably saying that his campaign was more about character and ideological beliefs and the importance of focusing on the fundamentals of the economy, rather than obsessing on the ups and downs of the unemployment rate.
But for the 12.8 million Americans still out of work , Santorum’s comment couldn’t have been more painful or enraging. And Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul quickly cited this as further evidence Santorum is an "economic lightweight."
On Friday, Santorum had to walk back an equally perplexing declaration that he would rather see President Obama reelected than have Romney win the GOP nomination and go on to occupy the White House. "You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who's just going to be a little different than the person in there," Santorum told a crowd in San Antonio on Thursday.”If you're going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch-A-Sketch candidate for the future."
That went over like a thud among Republicans who want Obama and his policies out – no matter what. The Romney camp issued a blistering retort on Friday, saying, “As senator Santorum continues to drag out this already expensive, negative campaign, it is clear that he is becoming the most valuable player on President Obama’s team.” Shortly after that, Santorum was back on message, declaring that it was essential to beat Obama, and that of course he “would support whoever wins the Republican primary.”
Santorum may have another good night Saturday in the Louisiana primary, where he is favored to beat Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and add another notch to his belt in southern states. But Santorum is falling further and further behind the Romney juggernaut in the delegate race. Even if he comes in second or third in Louisiana, Romney enjoys a better than 2 to 1 advantage over Santorum in delegates, and better than five or six to one in fund raising and campaign spending.
After his narrow win in Iowa and a trifecta of victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, Santorum catapulted to the front of the field after lagging well behind Romney, Gingrich and even Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. And while his often jarring conservative and religious rhetoric and controversial views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality raised serious doubts that he ever could become a true national candidate, there was something refreshing about Santorum’s straight from the heart delivery and emotional connection with the crowds of evangelical Christians and Tea Party adherents who flocked to his speeches.
Santorum has come a long ways from the guy relegated to the fringes of the stage at the debates. His victories in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee and Mississippi demonstrated he was someone to be taken seriously. But he has now failed three times to beat Romney in a major industrial state – losing in Michigan, Ohio and this week in Illinois. And after feeling the brunt of the Romney negative ad machine and the scrutiny of the media and Democratic opo-researchers, he has become embittered -- much like Gingrich did after getting roughed up by Romney in New Hampshire and Florida.
The Win-Loss Column
Although it has been drowned out by the uproar over the Etch-a-Sketch comment, Romney’s impressive 12-point victory over Santorum in Illinois on Tuesday marked a real turning point in the campaign. And that was swiftly followed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s endorsement of Romney, in which the highly regarded Republican Establishment figure said, “It’s time to end this thing” and pull together the party.
Romney now has 563 delegates to Santorum’s 263, Gingrich’s 135 and Paul’s 50. Romney has won 21 of the 32 contests to date, compared to nine for Santorum, two for Gingrich and none for Paul.
After Louisiana, the GOP primary contest moves on to the District of Columbia, Maryland and Wisconsin on April 3. If Romney manages to do well in Louisiana and sweeps the next three races, there can be little doubt he has sewn up the contest. But don’t tell that to his two main rivals.
Santorum and Gingrich insist that they can still block Romney from amassing the 1,444 delegates he needs to claim the nomination in Tampa in August. If they could somehow deny the former Massachusetts governor the nomination before then, they reason, grateful conservative GOP delegates will turn to one of them this summer to lead the party against Obama in the fall.
But what they choose to ignore is what Republican voters have been saying consistently since January. While the most conservative Republicans don’t think Romney is conservative enough for their tastes, the overarching concern of primary voters – from the most conservative to the most moderate -- is to nominate the most electable candidate to go up against Obama this fall. And consistently they have pointed to Romney as the most electable.
A just-released American Enterprise Institute analysis of all the exit and entrance polling conducted this year concludes that voters uniformly have cited the ability to defeat Obama as the candidate quality that mattered most. And Romney has usually won the votes of those who checked “can defeat Obama”’ as the most important candidate quality for them.
“Ideological, class, and religious divisions continue in the Republican electorate,” the study noted. “Romney usually loses ‘very conservative’ voters, but he does well with ‘somewhat conservative’ and ‘moderate/liberal’ voters. He does better among suburban voters than rural ones, and less religious than more religious. . . .Romney does well with college-educated and upper-income voters. . . .With the exception of South Carolina and Georgia, Romney has won the votes of those with family income of $100,000 or more.”
Still, Romney is not the candidate from GOP Central Casting, but someone the party is coming around to support. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a member of the Tea Party Caucus who had endorsed Romney's failed 2008 presidential bid, indicated in remarks to reporters this week that he has no immediate plans to endorse this year, but he spoke warmly about Romney.
"I can tell conservatives from my perspective ... I'm not only comfortable with Romney, I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee. His leadership skills, the fact that he hasn't lived his life in Washington, there's a lot to like there," DeMint said.