Mitt Romney’s struggles in the Colorado caucuses, where he finished a relatively close second to former Senator Rick Santorum, and his weaker showings in the Minnesota caucuses and the nonbinding Missouri primary, shouldn’t seriously derail his march to the Republican presidential nomination.
Despite Santorum’s strong showing on Tuesday, after his very poor showings in the more heavily contested South Carolina and Florida primaries, there is still no clear alternative to Romney; Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul are each taking a slice of the non-Romney vote. And caucuses and nonbinding primaries such as those on Tuesday tend to be more attractive to political activists, who are far more conservative than average voters. It’s not surprising that Romney didn’t do well in Minnesota and Missouri. But if Romney should feel the sting anywhere, it was in Colorado, where he competed heavily and spent money to organize supporters, and still came up short.
But this was a blip, not a stumble.
The surprise of this primary season isn’t that Romney can’t get more traction among conservatives — it’s that he’s succeeding without appealing to the party’s conservative base. While many previous Republican presidential nominees — George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain among them deviated from conservative orthodoxy in significant ways, Romney has arguably the least conservative record of any of them and he’s running in a year when the Republican center of gravity is further right than ever before. Romney’s ability to score well in places as varied as Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, and even Colorado suggests that, despite all the Tea Party hype about new voters upending old assumptions about the GOP, many Republican voters still look for candidates who are presidential in their bearing, and who have paid their dues by running for president before. Romney easily outstrips the weak field in those measures.
Tuesday’s results, however, should still count as a disappointment for the Romney camp, because they suggest that, even if his shot at the nomination isn’t in jeopardy, conservative leaders and their followers aren’t going to rally around him quickly enough to avoid a long primary fight. And while a long primary campaign can sharpen a candidate’s message, as it did with President Obama, it can also take a toll, as it did for Gerald Ford in 1976. This year’s Republican campaign is the most bitterly negative intra-party fight in recent political history, a far cry from the relatively civilized Obama-Clinton duel in 2008, and voters’ opinions about Romney can’t help but be influenced by the bile spewing from Gingrich, especially, but also Santorum and Paul.
In addition, Romney could find himself obliged to make further pledges to satisfy right-wing constituencies, promises that could haunt him when he tries to appeal to moderates in the fall. But those who are predicting trouble for Romney are probably overstating their case: Even if it takes him two more months to nail down the nomination, Romney will still have four months before the GOP convention to mend fences with conservatives and retool his image for the fall. All signs still point to a very competitive race for president, and Romney still has a good chance of becoming president — something none of his Republican opponents can say.