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Michael Gerson: GOP seems determined to humiliate front-runner Mitt Romney

By Michael Gerson

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, greet supporters at his campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C.

Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Having decided on their nominee, Republicans seem determined to humiliate him a few more times.

On Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney secured more convention delegates than all his opponents combined, making a good case for his mathematical inevitability. Once again, the candidate who looks like a Boy Scout won a political knife fight.

But Romney also decisively lost Oklahoma and Tennessee to a candidate, Rick Santorum, who lacks organization and message discipline. In Ohio, Romney finished within 0.8 percentage points of renewed speculation on the whereabouts of Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush. In Virginia, he couldn't break 60 percent against a candidate, Ron Paul, who wants to slash funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has appeared on Iranian state television to criticize American foreign policy.

Primary campaigns are often long, close, bloody affairs. Recall Bush versus McCain in 2000, or Obama versus Clinton in 2008. But these, in comparison to 2012, were clashes of titans. Romney has shown weakness against a series of relatively weak opponents. Even in the absence of a clearly electable alternative, a portion of the GOP wants to leave a wound on its likely leader.

For all his considerable skills and virtues, Romney is not a natural fit for the GOP nomination. But this is not entirely a bad thing.

Romney is an ideological mismatch for the current iteration of the GOP. In an increasingly conservative party, he is consistently losing very conservative voters. (In Ohio, Santorum carried them 48 percent to Romney's 30 percent.) This group seems emboldened by the 2010 election — convinced that, since any Republican nominee is likely to beat Barack Obama, it is important to pick the most uncompromising one.

In response, Romney has repeatedly used the word "conservative" to describe himself — a not very subtle strategy that has done little to allay ideological concerns. Romney at his most conservative is also at his most awkward.

But this disadvantage fades in the general election. The tea party analysis — greater power through greater purity — is simply wrong. In a nation with a fairly even ideological divide, any successful presidential candidate wins by both motivating his party's base and appealing to independents. Though Romney has a number of conservative instincts, he is not a product of the conservative movement. He remains an establishment figure with a history of pragmatism. He is more George H.W. Bush than Barry Goldwater — which displeases GOP conservatives but may serve Romney well in November.

Romney is also not a good regional fit for the GOP primaries. In general, his support declines in the South among every Republican ideological group — liberal, moderate and conservative. Regionalism is alive and well in America. I watched George W. Bush — an evangelical Texan — struggle (unsuccessfully) to appeal to New Hampshire primary voters in the 2000 election. Romney — a Mormon Yankee — has the mirror challenge in Dixie.

But this disadvantage dissolves in November.

Romney's geographic weakness in the South is nothing compared to Obama's own. Romney may have trouble in the upcoming Mississippi primary. He will not lose Mississippi to Obama in the general election.

Yet one awkward fit — related to class — becomes more damaging in November. In Ohio, as in Michigan, Romney lost voters making less than $100,000 a year, as well as voters without a college degree. In Oklahoma and Tennessee, Romney's support was below 25 percent among voters earning less than $50,000 a year.

It is true that Obama also has a serious problem with the white working class. He lost that group by 18 points in the 2008 election. But, since his State of the Union address earlier this year, Obama has been brushing up on his blue-collar populism. And he only needs to marginally improve his performance with these voters to seriously increase his re-election chances.

Romney, right now, is stuck in a stereotype. During occasional gaffes he sounds not just like your boss, but like your boss's boss. The main problem, however, is the message. In addition to talking about reducing taxes and cutting government, Romney needs to present a vision of social mobility — to set out the egalitarian appeal of opportunity. He needs to emphasize policies — on education, job skills and wealth accumulation — that encourage aspiration. But this appeal is postponed as long as the contest for conservatives in the Republican primaries continues.

Unlike his other challenges, Romney's class problem does not fade: It must be fixed. And it is difficult to even begin until the Republican race ends.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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