Now that more than half the states have held their primaries and caucuses, Rick Santorum has emerged as a clear challenger to Mitt Romney in the Republican race for the presidential nomination. Though they are jostling for the same voters, the two offer very different paths for the future of the Republican Party.
Romney positions himself as the pragmatic businessman, though his economic message was temporarily derailed by a report that the US economy added 227,000 jobs in February, the third straight month of significant job gains. His image as the “turn around” guy will become increasingly irrelevant if, leading up to November, the US economy keeps improving. To compound the bad news, Romney’s past position on the “individual mandate”, a cornerstone of Obama-care, has become a serious liability given the release of an op-ed piece he wrote in USA Today in 2009. The piece placed him in favour of using his Massachusetts health-care mandate as a national model, something he claims he was always against. Though Romney has a near unlimited amount of SuperPAC funding and the support of much of the Republican establishment, he has been unable to lock up the nomination, and remains especially weak among social conservatives.
Santorum, if he is the nominee, will have to fight an uphill battle to win over crucial swing voters in the general election. He represents the religious and social conservative wing of the GOP, and while his populist message and grass roots campaign has paid off with several big wins in red states like Alabama and Mississippi, his recent comments on contraception and education unleashed a firestorm of criticism, and may have cost him the primary battle in Michigan. It was clear from the exit polls on Super Tuesday that moderate republicans and independents, especially women, have serious problems with his social message, which he has since had to slightly walk back. He will have to find a way win to over this demographic if he wants to challenge Obama in November.
Periodic comments on the state of the race by prominent conservatives exemplify the weakness of these candidates. Calls for more popular politicians, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to step into the race have been periodically energized throughout the contest. Political commentator George Will, an influential figure in conservative circles, wrote a column for the Washington Post earlier this month where he lowered expectations for the republican nominee in the 2012 general election.
Referring to Romney and Santorum, he said “Neither… seems likely to be elected. Neither has demonstrated, or seems likely to develop, an aptitude for energizing a national coalition that translates into 270 electoral votes.” He believes the party should concentrate more on keeping the House and winning the Senate, in order to provide President Obama a “substantially reduced capacity to do harm” over the next four years.
This is a dangerous mindset for Republicans. If the general election is reduced to a contest between Obama and not-Obama, as opposed to a positive Republican candidate, it would be a huge setback for the Republican brand. The lack of a clear national leader in the GOP is already hurting their discipline and organization, and taking them dangerously off message, as evidenced by the recent contraception debate. In contrast to the Republicans’ haphazard performance in the media during the fiasco, the Democrats coordinated between the congressional leadership and the White House almost perfectly to inflict significant political damage.
While the battle was ugly, it highlights the importance of wrapping up the primary fueled infighting in the Republican party, and switching into general election mode as soon as possible. Whether they choose Romney or Santorum, the Republicans need to unite behind somebody sooner rather than later.
– Hussain Sanji