Mitt Romney: the Unloved Candidate and Unloved Front-Runner

Six realities emerged from last night’s Republican primaries are these:

1. Mitt Romney is one of the most unloved front-runners in Republican Party history.

2. Mitt Romney (a breakdown of votes in the Southern primaries shows) has not convinced evangelical voters. This is partially due to their disbelief that he is a conservative. And, clearly, there is the “M” factor: some Republican voters don’t seem inclined to vote for a Mormon. On the other hand, it has not proven to be as big a factor as some had predicted. But it is a factor.

3. Mitt Romney is one of the most unloved candidates in recent history — forget about his front-runner status in terms of delegates. Many Republicans seem as excited over Romney as they would over a candidate for President for a condo homeowners association.

4. Mitt Romney has lost control of the news narrative and it means he’ll have another High Noon, this time in Illinois.

5. Polls continue to suggest (on voters craving for someone who is electable) that if Romney gets the nomination he will get support from more Republicans than are voting for him in the primaries. Many Republicans will be excited once the convention is over to have a candidate…anyone…that can unseat President Barack Obama and conservative cable and radio talkers will quickly pick up the Romney election banner.

6. Romney and his brain trust need to have a nice, long sit down. Clearly, going into an area such as the south and saying you love grits and joking about “y’all” doesn’t work and only invites scorn from pundits and comedians. There is zero benefit, even if Romney considers it playful humor. Plus: Romeny’s problem is that conservatives consider him at the most charitable a late convert to conservatism and, in many cases, flatly lying about being conservative. He should not say anything that remotely plays into the perception that he is inauthentic.

The irony: if Romney had been running for the GOP Presidential nomination 20 or 30 years ago, he’d be a perfect candidate for his times. But he’s running in a party that has changed and is largely unconvinced he’ll change or has changed.

The Politico notes that Romney is basically muddling through to the convention:

Nothing is settled after the Alabama and Mississippi GOP primaries, but the two states injected a dose of clarity into the Republican battle Tuesday: Rick Santorum’s twin victories make him the unambiguous conservative alternative, Newt Gingrich has no obvious rationale for going forward and Mitt Romney must once again stage a crisis-and-recovery act to reassert his claim on a GOP primary that just keeps going.

Romney, who finished a disappointing third in both states despite the presence of two rivals dividing the right, will face renewed questions about his difficulty appealing to the core of the GOP and will be on the spot to score a win in Illinois next week.

Even more important, the establishment favorite needs to explain why, two-and-a-half months into the primary season, he can’t seem to put away underfunded rivals who are viewed by many in the party as general election disasters.

The delegate math continues to favor Romney — as his staff went to lengths to point out Tuesday night in a look-over-here tweet noting that results were still awaited from the promising American Samoa and Hawaii.

“It’s not easy, it’s a slugfest, and he’s not going to be coronated, but if you look at it removed from the spin, a reasonable person would conclude that he’s likely to be nominee,” argued former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a top Romney surrogate.

Yet even as he wins the delegate war, the former Massachusetts governor keeps getting reminders that conservatives are resistant to his candidacy and seemingly immune to the call of electability and inevitability.

And as the GOP clash enters spring, it increasingly appears to be taking place on parallel tracks that haven’t quite merged.

“There’s the delegate reality, which favors Mitt,” said GOP strategist Mike Murphy. “And then there’s the narrative reality, which tonight is that Mitt just lost two more.”

From Andrew Sullivan’s live blogging:

Here’s my take-away. Even with the full backing of the Mississippi political establishment, and with a 5 – 1 money advantage, Romney came in third. He lost by a larger margin in Alabama. If this were a race between him and Santorum, he would have been wiped out tonight. The pressure on Gingrich to quit will be intense, but if Adelson wants to keep financing him, his own ego would rather rip his own party apart than concede to allow a final fight for victory between Mitt and Rick.

So the odds of a brokered convention rise slightly; Romney remains unable to get any serious momentum; and Santorum keeps winning the vote of those earning under $50k. The evangelical vote against Romney remains solid, unchanging, resilient. The dynamic of the race has not altered; it has complicated marginally in Santorum’s direction.

Michael Tomasky:

I should say that the great joke of Tuesday night—the joke on celebrating liberals, which they should very much keep in mind—is that, assuming (should one still write “assuming”?) Romney is the GOP nominee, he will win these two states in November hands down. He couldn’t possibly lose them against Barack Obama. People sometimes lose sight of that.

But the fact is that these voters said to him, “You are third.” And that still means something. As Gingrich said in his speech, “If you’re the frontrunner, and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a frontrunner.” Just think back. If Santorum had been declared the Iowa winner the actual night of the Iowa caucuses, when he won, instead of days after … if he’d been lucky enough to get just a couple of thousand more votes in both Michigan and Ohio … Romney would be d-e-a-d now. Romney is just barely hanging on by the thinnest thread that exists. Lucky, very lucky, still to be in the race.

The Christian Science Monitor:

Another question is whether Mr. Romney, who failed to manage expectations for his performance in the Deep South, will shake up his campaign team in a bid to reassure donors. The Michigan-born former governor of Massachusetts had predicted he would win Alabama, even as he established that the Southern contests were an “away game” for him.

Romney’s losses were mitigated by victories in the Hawaii and American Samoa caucuses and the fact that all four of Tuesday’s contests will award delegates on a proposal basis. He came in a close third in Mississippi and Alabama, fewer than 3 percentage points behind Mr. Santorum in Mississippi and 5.5 points in Alabama.

The delegate math still favors Romney, a point he emphasized in a statement late Tuesday.

“I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight,” Romney said.

MSNBC’s must-read First Read team has several takes. Here are two of them:

*** Can Romney fix his perception problem? And the perception that Romney is facing right now is that he can’t put away Rick Santorum — despite all the money he has, the Restore Our Future Super PAC (which has spent $30 million in advertisements), his organizational advantage, and all the help he’s receiving from the GOP establishment. As Politico recently wrote, Romney is fighting the “loser” label; if he’s struggling against the under-financed and under-organized Santorum, the thinking goes, how will he fare going toe-to-toe with President Obama and a campaign organization that could be the most sophisticated in history? “Usually, once a politician takes on an aroma of hopelessness he keeps it. Bob Dole in 1996 limped to his nomination with few people expecting he would make a real race of it against Clinton, and he never did.” Yes, in 2008, John McCain lost several primary contests. And so did Obama. But the competition they faced was MUCH stronger than what Romney’s currently facing. As Romney limps toward the finish line, the question becomes: Can he heal, perception-wise, before the general?

*** Boston, we have a message problem… : Yet Romney might be facing an even bigger problem: What is his campaign about? He says he wants to “restore America’s greatness,” but what does that mean? (Go back to the ‘50s? The ‘60s? The ‘80s? The Bush years?) He says he’ll be able to turn around the economy, but what if it’s already slowly improving as the evidence currently suggests? And the campaign makes it clear that Romney is the inevitable nominee, but what happens if that inevitable nominee loses? Team Romney has had a message problem since this campaign began, and when you make your candidacy about electability and process, you’re going to pay a BIG price for losing to candidates. Why does Romney want to be president, an office he’s been running for the past six years? Has he really answered this basic question?

Some of columnist Dick Polman’s Tweets:’

A Newt daughter said that Dad is staying in because he’s “driving the nat’l conversation.” Nope. It’s because he pines to be a Tampa broker.
9h Dick Polman Dick Polman ? @DickPolman1

Hey, did you know that Romney is the “hand-picked candidate” of the “elite media?” Newt says so. I did not know that.
10h Dick Polman Dick Polman ? @DickPolman1

Mitt, after bad nite, goes to Illinois: “Luv the Cubbies. My kind of town, Chicago is. Luv deep dish pizza. My friends own pizza chains…”
10h Dick Polman Dick Polman ? @DickPolman1

Mitt is most electable? Today he said, “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that” – working on his inelectability among women.
11h Dick Polman Dick Polman ? @DickPolman1

Tweets by Andy Borowitz:

BREAKING: In Desperation Move, Romney Changes First Name to “Not” #GOPPrimary
9h Andy Borowitz Andy Borowitz ? @BorowitzReport

Mitt should know he’s not inevitable. The only inevitable things are death and taxes, or in his case, just death.
10h KimJongNumberUn KimJongNumberUn ? @KimJongNumberUn

“Rick Santorum may be the scariest person I’ve ever seen.” — Joseph Kony #GOPPrimary
10h Andy Borowitz Andy Borowitz ? @BorowitzReport

CNN: Santorum’s Home-Schooled Children Unable to Understand Election Returns #GOPPrimary
10h Andy Borowitz Andy Borowitz ? @BorowitzReport

CNN: Robert Gibbs of the Obama campaign will comment on tonight’s results as soon as he stops laughing uncontrollably.
10h Andy Borowitz Andy Borowitz ? @BorowitzReport

Exit Poll: A majority of Santorum voters describe themselves as “off my meds.” #GOPPrimary