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Editorial: Iowa’s message to Romney

With Mitt Romney’s razor-thin victory in Iowa’s presidential caucus, what’s the most telling number? Is it 8 — the margin by which he barely beat Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who came out of nowhere in the past two weeks (then polling almost dead last) to surprise everyone? Is it 21 percent — the protest vote given to 75-year-old, grouchy libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas? Or maybe 13 percent — the lousy showing by Newt Gingrich that landed him in a distant fourth place?
Try six.
That’s the number of votes fewer that were cast for Romney in the Iowa caucus this year compared to 2008. Think about that. Romney ran four years ago, placing a distant second behind Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 30,021 votes and 25.19 percent. In 2012, Romney got 30,115 votes and 24.6 percent of the vote. Since then, he has maintained a presence in the state for four years, campaigned there early on and still couldn’t sway more Iowans to support him this year than on his first try.
Could it mean the more you know about the candidate, the less you like him? Or is he just not very persuasive? Either way, it’s not a sign of enthusiastic support and that’s what worries many Republicans, even among the establishment.
And consider this: Romney reportedly spent $113 per vote in this year’s Iowa caucuses, compared to $1.65 per vote spent by Santorum. As the Daily Kos says, “Even money can’t buy Mitt love.”
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What the Iowa caucuses did say, however, was clear: Romney won’t win the nomination without a fight by the party’s conservatives. And that could spell trouble for the GOP. The party’s passionate and motivated right wing, from the anti-government Libertarians supporting Paul to the conservative evangelicals, has been encouraged to flourish since Bush’s election in 2000. And, frankly, it’s not a good idea to feed pet tigers lots of raw meat (from recalcitrant congressional Republicans to the conservative pit bulls on talk radio) and then suddenly cut off the supply when it suits party leaders.
Romney may suffer the consequence — tepid support, at best, or revolt.
It’s hard to imagine, for instance, the populist anger over Wall Street’s shenanigans and the privilege of the 1 percent (banks with exorbitant credit card fees, financial middlemen earning multi-million-dollar bonuses, a widening wage gap between rich and poor, and a party that won’t even support a modest tax hike on millionaires) will somehow play to Romney’s advantage.
Ron Paul’s hardnosed talk of free-enterprise might have pulled it off; Newt’s clever rationalizations might have confused enough to leave them dazed; Santorum’s integrity and devout belief might have carried a few true believers; but Romney’s pearly whites, broad shoulders, confident air and padded bank account that rivals the wealthiest of any candidate to ever run for president is hardly the right mix of characteristics to convince the angry middle class that he is the candidate they can trust and identify with.
Romney’s religious views are also a concern in the context of voter support. As a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, he doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ was the son of God; nor does his church believe in the Bible in the same way as evangelicals. Nothing against either belief. The point is that it’s unlikely Romney will get the fervent support among that group of Christian conservatives that were so instrumental in George W. Bush’s campaigns.
If the populist cry against Wall Street is lost, and the religious card is muted, what’s Romney’s big draw? He’ll cite the economy and creation of jobs; and he’ll pick up the conservative rant against big government and undue regulation.
But he’ll stumble there, too.
As governor of Massachusetts, he passed a progressive health care plan that has put the state in the forefront of a government-run health care system; a fact that many of his Republican challengers have been hammering for months. Similarly, when he proposes cuts to regulation, President Obama will be quick to point out it was the lack of federal regulation that allowed the nation’s financial institutions to run wild and wreck the world’s largest economy.
Obama will also note that when he took office in January 2009, the nation was losing 750,000 jobs a month. Obama will make the case that the government had to step in to prevent a financial collapse, which most likely prevented a far worse recession or depression had the government not intervened. Dealt the worst economic hand any president has inherited since the Great Depression, three years later the economy under Obama is adding jobs month by month and confidence is slowly returning, despite an obstinate Republican-led Congress that has the lowest voter approval rating in history.
And when Romney takes a tough stand against the government bailouts, including substantial help for the auto industry, Obama will note that he saved millions of jobs in that industry; that those companies — and all the banks and financial institutions (except AIG) — have repaid their loans with interest, and that they are now posting profitable quarters and growing stronger by the day.
Romney’s best bet is to strike out against the unknown by preaching fear. President Bush did it by raising the specter of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It turned out to be a lie, but it got him re-elected and, incidentally, caused a trillion dollars or so of debt.
Romney could do the same with Iran. He could rant and rave about the consequences of not holding that country in check, an argument that Obama will be hard-pressed to counter without appearing weak, even though such opposition would be prudent and in the nation’s best interest.
On the domestic front, Romney can skewer the president’s move toward a universal health care system. Again, it is an unknown; and the unknown threatens the status quo. Creating fear and doubt about the viability of a new health care system will be difficult to counter. In politics, fear of the unknown often wins over the optimistic belief that change will be better.
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The irony in this race is that neither Romney nor Obama, assuming they are the nominees, will have the support of their party’s fervent base. Romney, however, still has to win the nomination, which means moving even further to the right. That, in turn, will alienate independents and disenchanted Democrats. It’s a tough spot for Romney, who desperately needs to seal up the nomination early so he can move back to the political middle.
The double irony for Romney is that in moving back to a more moderate platform, he may secure the party’s biggest financial supporters but he’ll lose even more of those voters who make up the GOP’s conservative heart.
That was the message coming out of Iowa. Even though all signs point to Romney’s nomination, his party’s faithful don’t want him.
Angelo S. Lynn

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