Op-Eds, Presidential Elections

Election-night reflections

The Republican presidential race continues to stumble toward what party professionals fear could be a disastrous convention in Tampa. Mitt Romney remains the nominal front-runner, but he came in third in both Alabama and Mississippi. Rick Santorum was the big winner by narrow margins, but picked up fewer delegates than Romney. Newt Gingrich could not expand his Southern base from next-door Georgia, but says he is staying in the race.

For the GOP, it’s a political house of horrors!

At best, Romney is backing into the nomination, apparently incapable of winning the big races. Although the South has turned into a Republican stronghold, he downplayed expectations ahead of time. However, he was unable to get better than 30 percent in either state, demonstrating his problem not only in wrapping up the nomination but also in winning the general election, if he gets that far. He is the one Republican who makes Barack Obama look like a populist. Next up are the Missouri caucuses on Saturday and Illinois next week; losses there would generate panic attacks among the party elite.

Although Santorum has turned into a credible challenger, he finished the night with fewer delegates than Romney, who also won the American Samoa and Hawaii caucuses. Santorum remains the least able among the big three to expand his appeal for November. Indeed, many Bible Belt traditionalists in Alabama and Mississippi who view Mormonism as a cult might have voted not so much for him as against Romney. The social conservative favorite, Santorum scares away economic conservatives and the libertarian-minded. GOP pros fear the Republicans could give up hopes of winning the Senate and even lose the House with Santorum at the top of the ticket.

Gingrich ran close in both Alabama and Mississippi, but he is not likely to win the nomination coming in second. If Romney arrives at the convention short of a majority, anything could happen, but Gingrich’s negatives remain high. His bombastic unpredictability would pose an even bigger problem in November. Gingrich could play kingmaker, but he has given no indication of dropping out. Indeed, his continuing anger toward Romney was obvious last night with his snide reference to the “moderate from Massachusetts.”

Should Romney continue to fail to close the deal with Republican voters and arrive in Tampa short of the 1,144 delegates needed, a new face could emerge. It is still an outside possibility, but the GOP currently risks nominating someone no one likes, let alone is enthusiastic about, because the other two leading contenders offend even more people.

There’s still a long way to go until the convention in August, and the Republican primaries may yet yield new surprises. But one thing is assured: The only candidate consistently smiling is Barack Obama.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.

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