The week ended not so badly for the probable Republican front runner Mitt Romney, he won the Maine caucus and also narrowly edged out the darling of the moment Rick Santorum in the CPAC straw poll. His week had started worse than badly, a loss in Colorado, was followed by drubbings in Missouri and Minnesota on the same night. This multiple reversal foreshadows a long, complicated and unpredictable race and demonstrates the power of the anti-Romney vote. The reluctance of many Republicans to get behind him and his tepid attempts to fire up the party’s base points to the ideological battle that is convulsing the GOP and goes to the heart of post-Reagan American politics.
Too many in the party, Romney’s candidature is part of the wider problem; the machine of Wall Street and the establishment imposing moderate and what they deem to be “electable” candidates on the restive base. He is not the muscular populist conservative that wets their dreams; they can’t relate to his Massachusetts record of governorship, and they have documented proof of his flip flopping on abortion and the size of Government and other sacred cows.
The truth, for the leaders of the Republican Party, is that the right of American politics is in thrall to Tea party instincts which fire the imagination of conservative leaning voters in the South and Mid-West. The forensic evidence from Republican polls to date is that social conservatives shout louder and are more likely to vote than moderates. The fact that their vote is split between Gingrich and Santorum is giving Romney room to chalk up some victories, which his Super Pac millions and organisation should be buying with ease.
As worrying to the party elite is the internal political arithmetic; the realisation that in most primaries and caucuses, the amount of Republican votes cast is down from four years ago and down significantly. The truth is that right of centre rhetoric is exciting a smaller but more volatile and vocal portion of the electorate. As the party seems to drift further rightwards, independents that may by attuned to the message of smaller government and balanced budgets are being scared away by an organisation whose members scream that the President is socialist, was not born in the country regardless of the evidence and is un-American in every move he makes.
For a moderate Republican to stand for high office it is now essential that they shed any vestiges of temperance in social matters and say the word “conservative” as many times as humanly possible. On Friday at CPAC, the Mormon candidate described himself as "severely conservative". Just 10 years ago he claimed "I think people recognise that I'm not a partisan Republican, that I'm someone who is moderate, and my views are progressive." Though his speech was just about enough for him to win the following straw poll, it plays into a wider impression that he will say anything to get elected. He is slick, looks presidential but stands for nothing.
Santorum has become the standard bearer of the social conservatives in 2012, showing remarkable resilience in seeing off Cain, Bachmann, and Perry; he now has Gingrich on the ropes, as the last great white hope of the right of the party. To rapturous applause, Santorum appeared to be the star at CPAC. The man many polls give a slight or healthy lead over Romney to nationally declared, “Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party that the party's not excited about”. It’s hard not to see this as a wider question that goes to the heart of the issue of the GOP, that there is a Mason and Dixie line divide in its ranks: to all intents and purposes it is two parties. One wing is excitable and fearful of anything with the label “mainstream” and wants its politics pure; the other is pragmatic and prepared to be consensual, to reach out to independents with moderate language and do deals. Pandering to the excitable faction will cripple Romney if he wins the nomination, he can’t out “conservative” Santorum and if he thinks he can, he is deluded. There are millions of Republicans voters and potential voters who are being left out in this nomination process. He ignores them at his peril.
The best bet for Romney right now is to articulate a clear vision for America that has red meat, is infused with hope, talks to moderate Republicans and independents and drags the party back from the wild extremes of The Tea party. He should not talk about his father being a carpenter, no one will buy that sentimental rubbish; Romney is rich and has always been rich he can’t pretend otherwise. He needs to be bold; put some detail on what he would do as president and inspire, creating a vision that the best American politicians have always been able to conjure up and to sell it. Herman Cain’s 999 was simplistic and unrealistic but it was a plan that voters could get hold of. He needs to cook up Mitt’s version while there is still time, before his campaign melts down on Super Tuesday.
Another thing is clear, Romney can’t bomb and napalm his way to the nomination. He can’t go overly negative, buying extra Super Pac bile filled attack ads against Santorum as they will surely backfire, reinforcing the view that he stands for nothing but has a lot of rich supporters. Whether you agree with his view on contraception or not, Santorum’s position and vision for America is clear, Romney needs to stand up now and stand for something and save the GOP from becoming an unelectable rump or the party may well risk splitting in two post the Obama victory in November.