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The Daily Need

Super Tuesday offers crucial test for Republicans hurt by protracted primary campaign

Presidential candidates at the 20th Republican presidential debate held on Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Arizona. Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Mitt Romney is, once again, poised to solidify his front-runner status in the Republican presidential primary Tuesday, as 10 states hold nominating contests. Of course, as we have seen before, attempts to coronate a Republican nominee can be premature. But Super Tuesday has long been Romney’s to lose— with his unrivaled ground game and piles of cash, he is the only candidate capable of competing in multiple states at once.

A Romney victory will come as good news to Republican eminences, who have been clamoring for a speedy resolution to an otherwise dispiriting primary campaign. Polls widely indicate that the protracted battle between Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum has tarnished the Republican brand and hurt its standing among key voting blocs, such as independents and the white, working class.

A crucial test of Romney’s strength among those groups will come in Ohio, the crown jewel of Super Tuesday and an important battleground in the general election. Ohio offers the second largest pool of delegates, next to Gingrich’s home state of Georgia (which the former House speaker is expected to win handily). Romney and Santorum have been engaged in close combat in Ohio, trading barbs and courting voters aggressively.

Ohio, of course, offers more than a mere delegate count. The winner of Ohio could conceivably claim to be the candidate best positioned to win the general election, and to appeal to the voting blocs Republicans will have to do well in to defeat President Obama. The unemployment rate in Ohio is now 8.1 percent, slightly lower than the rest of the nation. Economic gains in the state have boosted President Obama’s standing there, and he has made a calculated attempt to appeal to working class voters by embracing income equality as the defining issue of his re-election campaign.

The worst possible outcome for Republicans on Tuesday, of course, would be a muddled one. Even if, say, Romney were to win a plurality of Super Tuesday’s delegates, which he is almost certain to do, Santorum could once again upset the race by winning Ohio and several other states in which he is expected to do well, such as Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. Such an outcome would make real the worst fears of Republican leaders, who see a long, protracted fight as poisonous to the party’s electoral chances.

Indeed, Santorum’s fortunes tonight may well be a barometer, of sorts, for the tone and substance of the general election campaign. In contrast to Romney’s economic message, Santorum has focused on social issues, such as religion on college campuses and the debate over insurance coverage for contraception. If Santorum performs well among Republican voters on Tuesday, even if it doesn’t catapult him to front-runner status, it could mean that his message is resonating.

And that, perhaps, is the worst possible outcome of all for Romney. Romney has made his campaign entirely about one issue: jobs. As the economy has improved, however, that weapon has become less potent. And in a reversal from previous years, “culture war” issues like gay marriage and abortion seem to be playing to the Democrats’ strengths rather than the Republicans’. As the former governor of liberal Massachusetts, Romney has had to adjust his positions on social issues throughout his political career. Polls show that voters, as a result, trust him less on those issues than they do his Republican rivals. (Republican voters’ biggest concern about Romney, according to a recent poll, was, “He waffles on the issues and does not take a position.”)

Regardless of who emerges as the nominee, however, the lengthy primary campaign has already taken its toll on the Republican Party. President Obama outperforms all of his Republican rivals among key voting blocs, including independents and women. He’s doing better among Latinos by a six-to-one margin, a precipitous decline in Latino support for Republicans from just four years ago. Democrats have been energized by fights over income equality and contraception. Republicans, by contrast, described themselves in a recent poll as “unenthusiastic,” “discouraged,” and “depressed.”

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