Historic win, yet Mitt Romney still plays Charlie Brown to pundits' Lucy

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 10 2012 9:44 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, celebrates his New Hampshire Primary Election win in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Associated Press

» View our political blog, with live updates and analysis of the New Hampshire primary.

Mitt Romney has to be feeling a bit like Charlie Brown, as Lucy the pundit pulls the ball away again.

Romney made history Tuesday as the first nonincumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. No GOP candidate has ever won both states before, and no GOP candidate has ever won the nomination without winning one of them. In short, Romney made history, and to defeat him now his opponents must see him and raise him.

And yet, doubt persists as to whether Romney has the cards.

Tuesday, all of Romney's main opponents came up short, with Gingrich and Santorum languishing just over single digits. Silver and bronze in New Hampshire went to candidates unlikely to go much further. Huntsman bet everything on New Hampshire, and to show for it now has a mere third-place finish and little campaign infrastructure. Ron Paul remains a wildcard, but seems unlikely to seriously challenge.

Romney's New Hampshire night may have been just enough. Newt Gingrich helpfully volunteered that Romney's target should be 50 percent, but other voices suggested between 35 percent and 37 percent as good numbers, and he appears precisely on target.

Exit polls Tuesday offered good omens for Romney. He won across all major demographics, including "conservatives," "very conservatives" and "moderate/liberals." The only others to cross 20 percent on ideology were Rick Santorum, who lost the "very conservative" vote to Romney 33 percent to 26 percent, and Ron Paul, who lost the "moderate/liberals" by 37 percent to 26 percent.

However, only 49 percent of New Hampshire voters Tuesday were Republicans, and polls still show ambivalence in the base. A Gallup poll today did show that 59 percent of conservatives would find Romney acceptable, but a CBS poll shows that 58 percent of GOP voters wish there were other candidates.

More uncertainty stems from attacks this week against Romney's business background, funded by a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich and bolstered by Huntsman, Gingrich and Perry. The attacks frame Romney and Bain Capital as unscrupulous "corporate raiders."

Gingrich's new offensive had a curious early effect. In addition to delighting the Democratic National Committee, it galvanized conservatives for Romney who had been hostile or neutral. The Glenn Beck Show and Rush Limbaugh both countered with incredulity and passion. Chris Chocola, president of The Club for Growth, a schismatic action tank aligned with the tea party, called the attacks "economically ignorant class warfare rhetoric" that undermines "a basic tenet of economic freedom." Ron Paul, a strange bedfellow Romney ally of late, also leapt to his defense. James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal dubbed the former Speaker "Barack Hussein Gingrich," but suggested that he was doing Romney a favor — rallying the free market base to his side, while hardening him for the race in the fall.

Whether Taranto is right will hinge in part on a fault line running through the Republican Party, and one South Carolina is well-placed to expose. While most GOP elites passionately support market economics and free trade, there is an undercurrent in the GOP base that resonates strongly to Main Street vs. Wall Street economic populism. Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee and now Rick Santorum all have tapped this impulse, and much of Ross Perot's appeal in the 1990s was based on it. A 2010 NBC/WSJ poll showed that 61 percent of tea partiers opposed free trade agreements. Free trade is a good marker for economic populism.

These are the NASCAR voters, culturally conservative, instinctively distrustful of government, but also prone to distrust Wall Street and the corporate boardrooom. On the flip side, many of these same voters take their cues from conservative voices such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who, for all their populism, are staunch supporters of market economics, free trade and the profit motive. Whether Gingrich gets any traction from this offensive remains to be seen, but skepticism seems warranted.

Regardless, South Carolina now looms as a "do over" for Romney's ability to persuade a fiercely conservative Republican base. In Iowa, Romney ran even with Rick Santorum, the latest darling of evangelicals. Romney's continuing difficulties as a moderate Mormon courting the conservative Christian vote need no retelling here. Now he faces the added challenge of economic populism. His job will be to convince South Carolina blue collar evangelicals that a Harvard-trained Mormon capitalist earning a healthy profit is as American as apple pie.

Eric Schulzke holds a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in American Government and is executive director of The Apollo 13 Project, a prisoner reentry initiative. He can be reached at eric@a13.org.

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