The battle for the GOP presidential nomination stands to gain a degree of clarity after Tuesday – amid signs that the race has hurt the eventual nominee’s chances in the eyes of some Republicans.
The nominating fight has stretched two months already has been marked by an especially negative tone. And it’s taken a toll; 40 percent of U.S. adults – and 23 percent of GOP primary voters – said the primary process has given them a less favorable opinion of the Republican primary, according to Monday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
“I think if you polled folks, they very much want to have a spokesperson — an identified candidate — sooner rather than later,” said Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican who’s backing Romney, and a veteran of Capitol Hill.
LaTourette represents a district in northeast Ohio, the consummate swing state which plays host to one of 11 contests on Super Tuesday in which delegates are at stake. The competition is especially fierce in Ohio, where Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are rehashing their fight from Michigan’s primary just a week before.
A week later, the tables have been turned for Santorum. He’s now the candidate who must beat expectations and halt Romney’s momentum. Ohio, and, to a lesser extent, Tennessee, have become the proving ground for the Pennsylvania senator on Tuesday.
"Politics is a game of expectations — who overperforms, who underperforms ... I still believe a coalescing needs to take place behind an alternative to Romney," said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative leader from Iowa whose support helped propel Santorum to an ultraslim victory over Romney in the state's Jan. 3 caucuses. "I think what he [Santorum] needs to do is he needs to over-deliver on expectations."
In both Ohio and Tennesee, Santorum has witnessed his lead over Romney evaporate after Romney successfully defended his native Michigan, and defeated the former Pennsylvania senator in the state. Super Tuesday might not offer Romney an opportunity to deliver a knockout blow, but, at a minimum, he could put Santorum on the ropes by beating him in one or both states.
Team Romney believes that factors within the Republican Party are beginning to move in the former Massachusetts governor’s direction. Romney enjoyed his highest-ever level of support among Republicans compared to past NBC/WSJ polls, and the closing gap in some Super Tuesday states, especially in Ohio, suggests momentum.
“There is a feeling that we have had a vigorous debate about the direction we want to take as a party, and how we want to prosecute Obama on the No. 1 issue, which is the economy,” one Romney adviser said. “We are seeing a movement by many voters to consolidate all the different factions behind one candidate, that candidate being Romney.”
The GOP logic is that once the nomination fight has wrapped, the eventual nominee will be able to pivot toward President Barack Obama, and reverse the damage to the party’s brand.
“Right now there's a media narrative that none of them are up for prime time,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who argued the prolonged primary has actually made Romney a sharper candidate. “The good news for Republicans is once we have a nominee, he'll be able to define himself.”
Whether the campaign will reach that inflection point Tuesday night is a matter of campaign mechanics as much as raw votes and momentum.
Vander Plaats called Romney the “odds-on” favorite to win the nomination as long as GOP voters fail to rally — quickly — behind Santorum as the lone alternative to Romney. He argued that Gingrich should consider exiting the campaign after Tuesday night if the former House speaker fails to score any significant wins.
But the Gingrich campaign has worked intently on winning Georgia, which offers Tuesday’s largest kitty of delegates. And a Gingrich surrogate, Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, argued that recent weeks of focus on Santorum’s social views have illustrated the risk in making the former senator the GOP’s nominee.
“We’re not 100 percent sure that Santorum has the right language. You have to be very delicate and diplomatic about the things you say,” he said. “I think there are some things that he has said along the way that weren’t vetted that would come back to haunt him.”
And as for Vander Plaats’s wish that Gingrich drop out if he loses Georgia? “I think that he would probably look at that, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Kingston said.
If it’s the case that Romney wins Tuesday and none of his challengers exit the campaign, the race for the nomination may shift into a new stage with Romney in more commanding position, all while fighting to keep his momentum going and bleeding his rivals of support and finances.
LaTourette said he didn’t expect the campaign to end after Tuesday, but expressed his sense of the sentiment among Republicans on Capitol Hill that the nominating battle should wrap up by no later than Memorial Day.
“There comes a point in time when it's too late. I remember Bob Dole and President Clinton. He never got rolling, if you will,” he said. “I would expect Santorum's money to dry up if he doesn't pull out a couple rabbits tomorrow … If he wins it goes on for a little bit, but I really don't see him capturing the hearts and minds of the average Republican voter.”