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Four candidates, four factions — but can one man unite the Republicans? Let to right: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul 

For all that Mitt Romney must still be considered the front runner for the Republican nomination in August, the race is wide open, and might well remain so even after 437 delegates — one-fifth of the total — are chosen on "Super Tuesday", March 6. Romney and Rick Santorum have each won four states. Santorum's stunning three-nil victories for Colorado (40 per cent to Romney's 35 per cent), Minnesota (44.8 per cent to 27.2 per cent) and the Missouri "beauty contest" (55.2 per cent to 25.3 per cent) show that he is far more of a formidable candidate for the much coveted Not-Mitt position than is Newt Gingrich, who has so far only won South Carolina. Yet on February 11, Romney beat Santorum in Maine by 39 per cent to Santorum's 18 per cent and more surprisingly among the attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) by 38 per cent to 31 per cent. The Maine turnout was pathetically small — Romney won with 2,190 votes out of the 297,000 registered Republicans there — which hardly augurs well for the struggle against President Obama in November.

The extraordinary volatility of the voting this year is easily explicable: Republicans' heads and hearts are completely disconnected. In their hearts they want Ronald Reagan back, and they dislike Mitt Romney for the way he had to tack leftwards over social issues in order to secure the governorship of Massachusetts. They don't like the Romneycare health plan, the country-club smooth Establishment feel to him, the asset-stripper reputation (however undeserved) from his time at Bain Capital, and his supposed lack of passion. Yet in their heads they know that in order to beat Barack Obama in November — the ultimate holy grail — they need someone who can appeal to moderates, independents and even disillusioned Democrats, of whom there are many millions here. They also know that a successful businessman who can read a balance sheet will be far more attractive to the floating voter than the socially ultra-conservative Santorum or the personal baggage-laden Gingrich. Republican voters know whom they ultimately have to choose, but so far only about 38 per cent of them ever seem willing to do it. Even in Maine, a moderate New England state that Romney should have swept, the swivel-eyed isolationist Ron Paul got 36 per cent of the vote. 

With only 5.4 per cent of the 2,286 delegates to August's Republican national convention in Tampa elected so far, Romney (with 123 delegates to Santorum's 72 and Gingrich's 37) has a very long way to go before reaching the magic number of 1,144 needed to secure the nomination, so the historically unprecedented volatility of this race may yet hold some surprises. Certainly, the prospect that Romney staffers held out after New Hampshire of a leisurely stroll to the winning line is now totally out of the question. Moreover, there are now three more debates scheduled, giving Santorum another opportunity to attack Romney over his healthcare and Bain achilles' heels.

Romney was greatly helped by the fact that Florida was the first large state to vote, so intimate town hall meetings weren't as important as TV and radio advertising, indeed for the most part they were impossible to undertake. The no fewer than ten local media networks in Florida mean that it costs $1m per week to broadcast statewide TV ads there, and by the last week of the Florida vote no fewer than 92 per cent of them were "negatives", i.e. attacking the opponent rather than praising the candidate. Of people who watched these TV ads — which is pretty much every Floridian, as they are hard to miss and anyhow make compulsive viewing — 52 per cent broke towards Romney and only 29 per cent for Gingrich. They work. The prize for the nastiest attack in the race so far goes to Gingrich's automatic phone call, or "robocall", that stated that Romney "once vetoed a bill paying for kosher food for our seniors in nursing homes — Holocaust survivors — who for the first time were forced to eat non-kosher because Romney thought $5 was too much to pay for our grandparents to eat kosher." Gingrich's first move after conceding defeat in Florida was thus to contact his 1.4 million Twitter followers asking for more money for ads like that.

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March 21st, 2012
4:03 AM
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