Election 2012: Rival's Exit Confirms Romney As US Republican Candidate
The decision by Rick Santorum to suspend his campaign has effectively confirmed Mitt Romney as the Republican who will compete for the presidency against incumbent Barack Obama.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Rick Santorum yesterday (10 April) retired from the Republican nomination race, making Mitt Romney the de facto party nominee.
His exit frees Romney to focus his campaign on defeating the Democratic incumbent, but the Democrats are also ramping up their attacks on Romney and are exploiting the lengthy Republican nomination process.
Romney's chances of defeating Obama rest heavily on the path of economic recovery. Assuming the recovery continues through November, then Romney's record as a skilled business executive will lose some of its potency as an electoral asset.
The Final Exit
To the relief of Republican organisers, the party's nomination process effectively ended yesterday (10 April) when Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, announced the suspension of his campaign. His statement began by thanking supporters for their messages of support for the Santorums' three-year-old daughter Bella, who suffers from the rare disorder trisomy 18 and who was admitted to hospital with pneumonia over the weekend. This news had prompted Romney's campaign to suspend its barrage of negative ads against Santorum, ahead of a primary in his home state of Pennsylvania on 24 April. Although not stated explicitly, his daughter's illness was most likely a significant factor in the candidate's decision to withdraw. Santorum's statement noted that Romney had outspent Santorum by a factor of up to 10-to-1 in some of the primary contests, whereas Santorum ran "almost entirely positive ads" and had "avoided character attacks". It appealed for further donations to pay off the ex-candidate's campaign debts. The message did not include an endorsement of Romney. Romney responded with a brief, three-line statement congratulating Santorum on his campaign and describing him as an "important" voice within the party.
Neither campaign's statements overflowed with sympathy or praise for their rival. Santorum prospered by damaging perceptions of Romney among a large section of the Republican base, principally among lower-income and more conservative activists. Romney's well-funded campaign responded by purchasing negative TV ads against Santorum, thereby earning Romney a reputation for underhand tactics and draining his resources for the fight against Obama. Nevertheless, the tactic proved effective in key states and Romney was showing signs of defeating Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania, a humiliation that, had it occurred, could have forced the former senator from the race. Yesterday, Romney's campaign also announced the endorsement of Pennsylvania's serving Republican Senator Pat Toomey, another blow to Santorum's chances. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the Republican race, but they have no realistic chance of overhauling Romney.
A New Gear
Mitt Romney, right, and Rick Santorum argue a point during a
Santorum's campaign pushed Romney into defending his conservative credentials. Some polls indicate that Romney's effort to shore up these credentials have damaged his popularity among centrist voters. Romney's campaign will now tack towards the political centre in an effort to win over this crucial undecided constituency, but this tried-and-tested campaign path will be unusually difficult this time. Conservative critics have labelled Romney a political shape-shifter whose positions vary according to circumstance. Obama's Democrats also intend to portray Romney as a "flip-flopper" who has reversed his stance on key issues, a line of attack that damaged Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Last month one of Romney's officials, Eric Fehrnstrom, became notorious for describing Romney's campaign as an "Etch-a-Sketch" which would be re-set after the nomination process. The Democratic National Committee has since released an ad featuring the 1980s drawing toy that accused Romney of trying to erase "extreme" positions he took during the primary race.
Describing Romney as an "extremist" has been an early theme of Obama's re-election campaign (see United States: 4 April 2012: Election 2012: US President Attacks Republican Budget As "Social Darwinism"; Romney Sweeps Primaries). As the Republican candidate, Romney must now brace for a growing onslaught of negative attacks from the Democrats. Many of these will draw on the experiences of Santorum's campaign and his criticisms of Romney. Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina responded to Santorum's exit by claiming that Romney had "ground down" his rivals with negative attacks and was funded by "special interests". Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod suggested that Romney had "bought" the Republican nomination. Both observations echoed parts of Santorum's retirement statement.
Santorum's claim that he ran a positive campaign against Romney is not entirely accurate. Much of his rhetoric was devoted to attacking Romney's record as the governor of Massachusetts, particularly his decision to introduce healthcare policies that bear fundamental similarities to Obama's nationwide Affordable Care Act. Santorum argued that this record "uniquely disqualified" Romney from attacking Obama over his healthcare policies, which polls suggest are unpopular and which the president has tended to avoid mentioning in key public addresses. Yesterday the Obama administration attempted to rebuff claims by a Republican economist that "Obamacare" would expand the US fiscal deficit, contrary to Democratic projections. The Supreme Court continues to ponder the constitutionality of the act's individual mandate, which forces Americans to purchase health insurance—a feature of Romney's own healthcare policies (see United States: 29 March 2012: Obama's Campaign for Re-Election Embraces US Supreme Court Healthcare Hearings).
Obama has also been promoting his "Buffett Rule", which will require Americans who earn more than USD1 million per year to pay a minimum 30% level of income tax. Speaking yesterday in Florida, the president said that the share of national income going to the top one per cent of earners was "as high as it's been since the 1920s". During the nomination process Romney was forced to admit that he pays closer to 15% tax on his multi-million-dollar earnings, as opposed to the top rate of 35% (see United States: 18 January: Election 2012: US Administration Heaps Pressure on Republican Front-Runner's Tax Returns). Obama's "Buffett Rule" rhetoric is designed to portray Romney as a wealthy man out of touch with the concerns of the middle class. The Republicans have branded this tactic "class war" on the part of the Democrats, who they accuse of demonising success and prosperity.
Outlook and Implications
Romney's chances of defeating Obama rest heavily on the path of economic recovery. March's jobs figures were disappointing, but they were probably misleadingly so (see United States: 10 April 2012: US Posts Disappointing Jobs Figures in March). Assuming the recovery continues through November, with the benchmark unemployment rate perhaps dipping below 8%, then Romney's record as a skilled business executive will lose some of its potency as an electoral asset and Obama becomes the firm favourite to win. If the recovery stalls, however, Romney has a chance, especially if he selects a running mate who offsets his lack of appeal to the conservative base. Although the race against Santorum was bruising, it also forced Romney's campaign to analyse rigorously some of the key states he must win if he is to beat Obama. This experience could prove crucial if the presidential contest is a close one.
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