Super Tuesday's slew of presidential primary elections and state caucuses underscored a recurring challenge for GOP presidential nomination front-runner Mitt Romney — his inability to clinch broad-based support within his own party.
Rick Santorum continues as the fly in the ointment for the Romney camp. The former Pennsylvania senator, for lack of a better option, has become the anti-Romney, to the chagrin of the former Massachusetts governor and many others concerned with nominating someone capable of defeating President Barack Obama.
Romney secured expected victories in Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, Virginia and Alaska, though Rep. Ron Paul gave Romney a challenge in Virginia, where they were the only two on the ballot. Santorum won in Tennessee, Oklahoma and, unexpectedly, in North Dakota, a state Romney carried in the 2008 GOP race. Newt Gingrich won a decisive victory in his home state, Georgia.
Even the night's biggest story, Romney's paper-thin victory over Santorum in the battleground state of Ohio, offered more evidence of the weakness of the Republican field. Romney is not connecting with far too many voters, and the strongest alternative is a former senator with a lackluster message, little political cash to spend and such a disorganized campaign his name didn't even appear on the ballot in Virginia.
Santorum has no ideological movement of support pushing his candidacy like, for example, that of Rep. Ron Paul and his rabid, devoted and philosophically committed supporters. Instead, Santorum continues to lure voters — many of whom might identify as social conservatives — who find Romney unpalatable at the top of the national GOP ticket. But these Republicans are running more from Romney than toward Santorum.
What does it say about a front-runner who is able in most states to attain only a plurality, rather than a majority, of his party's support despite far outspending his opponents?
Even after Super Tuesday, Romney still looms as the GOP's inevitable nominee but he has serious challenges, especially in a prospective battle against President Obama. As a result of his inability to date to connect with base Republican voters, Romney has had no traction in Southern states, vital GOP terrain, and does not appear genuine to many voters.
Part of Romney's challenge is that, as he attempts to run away from his New England Republican persona, voters aren't convinced by his professed conversion to quasiconservatism. It is more difficult for traditionally moderate New England Republicans to be successful in today's more conservative Republican Party. But it is not insurmountable. What may most alienate voters is that Romney comes off as arrogant and unwilling to acknowledge his biggest mistakes and condemn them, particularly Romneycare, the Massachusetts health care law enacted while he was governor that shares key features with the president's health care overhaul despised by so many Republicans.
Not having a decisive, widely liked front-runner for the GOP at this juncture in an election year is viewed as a benefit for President Obama, who is able to sit back and watch the Republican contenders bash each other. On the flip side, though, the extension of the primary campaign will force the Republicans to campaign in parts of the United States more intensively than they would have had to in prior years, which may have residual benefit during the general election.
Super Tuesday changed little in the GOP primary bedlam and further highlighted Romney's inability to improve his image with base voters and overcome doubts about his candidacy.
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