A week ago, Rick Santorum looked as though he might give Mitt Romney a thrashing in the Michigan primary, which would have unleashed a wave of grim assessments of the Mormon's prospects: his failure to lock up the race for the Republican nomination, his inability to connect with the common man or woman, the looming possibility of a brokered convention.
Romney's put such a fate behind him, at least till the next time he falters, which could be in the Washington state caucuses on March 3, Saturday, or in any of the 10 states having primaries or caucuses a week from today.
So Romney's a survivor. He recovered from a defeat at the hands of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina in time to win Florida; he routed Santorum last night. But each comeback has come with a huge price tag. Not just the millions Romney had to pour into negative ads against Santorum in Michigan but in the whole character of his battle with Santorum.
What nearly sank Romney in Michigan was his refusal to concede that he was totally wrong four years ago in opposing bailouts -- initiated by Bush and carried through by Obama -- for General Motors and Chrysler. Both companies were thrown life belts of government loans and are now doing well, giving jobs to thousands of autoworkers and suppliers in Michigan and Ohio. At the convention of the United Auto Workers last week, Obama had rare sport with Romney on this issue, eliciting howls of merriment and derision for Romney from his blue-collar audience. They could easily pull both Michigan and Ohio into the Democratic column next November. No Republican has ever won the White House without prevailing in Ohio.
If Romney is to have a decent chance of defeating Barack Obama in the fall, he has to make a strong general showing among Hispanics, women and middle-of-the-roaders. The growing Hispanic vote in states such as California and Texas is one of the core truths of politics in the coming era. In the early 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson effectively destroyed the Republican Party in California by backing legislation targeting illegal Hispanic immigrants. Hispanics are naturally conservative. They oppose abortion. But they don't forget politicians who race bait and try to deny immigrants access to schools and social services.
Yet in the last debate in Arizona, another state with a hefty Hispanic population, Romney applauded the state's repellent crackdown on illegal immigrants as "a model." The Obama administration repudiated it as unconstitutional. For good measure, Romney launched an attack on Sonia Sotomayor, the first Puerto Rican member of the US Supreme Court. In terms of political strategy, it's like watching a man put a rope around his neck and kick away the chair.
Republicans win by stressing their superior ability in standing tall, defending the United States against its enemies, and steering the ship of state in the right direction. They don't win campaigns on social issues such as contraception or abortion.
For a couple of weeks, Americans have been listening, with some incredulity, to Santorum denouncing the separation of church and state and saying he "threw up" when he read a speech by President John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, endorsing just such a separation in his campaign in 1960. So does Santorum want America to become some sort of snooping theocracy with no bedroom free from its intrusions? Santorum seems quite blithe at the prospect. And over in the other corner is a Mormon, active in his faith and secret rites. Is this a recipe for victory in modern America?
What we could be witnessing is the death of the Republican Party as one capable of winning a national election, since its active base are right-wing nuts of the sort Romney has been groveling to across the past months. Because seats for the US Congress are now all gerrymandered and very rarely change hands, Republicans can still command majorities in the House of Representatives, but their hopes of capturing the US Senate are now receding.
Romney is a clumsy candidate. He's stuck his foot in his mouth many times, most recently when he laconically cited his wife's ownership of two Cadillac's. But on his present course, assuming he survives the contests of the next week, he faces doom in the fall.