Analysis: Romney's Rivals Running Out Of Time To Stop Him

Lee Bandy knows more about politics in South Carolina than just about anybody. For 40 years, Bandy has been among the best political prophets in a state whose primary has correctly picked every Republican candidate for U.S. President since 1980.

In just over a week, on January 21, the state's, and Bandy's, powers of prognostication will be tested once more, in a Republican primary season whose unpredictable twists and turns have made fools of many prophets.

Right now Bandy, a veteran columnist with The State newspaper in Columbia, is betting on Mitt Romney to win the South Carolina primary, and small wonder.

No Republican candidate has ever followed a win at the Iowa caucus, which Romney secured narrowly last week, with victory in the New Hampshire primary, and virtually everyone but his opponents expects that he will do just that on Tuesday night.

The latest polls show Romney with a 20-point lead over his nearest rival in New Hampshire and recent polls in South Carolina show him having leapfrogged more conservative opponents into first place there.

"A lot of Republicans down here don't like Romney," Bandy said of South Carolina voters. He was referring especially to the two thirds of Republican primary voters in the Palmetto State who are evangelical Christians. They are leery not only of Romney's Mormon faith but also of his earlier moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage, among other social conservative apostasies.

"But many have decided to vote for him because they think he's going to get the nomination. The aim here is to unseat Obama, and there's no real movement toward any other candidate."

"Is the Romney nomination a done deal? If he wins South Carolina it is highly unlikely he will not be the nominee," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist.


"There is a large anti-Romney bloc out there," O'Connell added. If you put together the votes for Santorum, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry into one, "they would have the numbers to beat Romney," he said.

They cannot be rolled into one, of course - unless perhaps they can.

Perhaps the greatest threat Romney faces in South Carolina is from Republican Senator Jim DeMint. A favorite of the conservative anti-Washington Tea Party movement, DeMint has yet to endorse a candidate.

"An endorsement by Jim DeMint would be a huge boost" to a Romney rival ahead of the South Carolina primary, O'Connell said. "It could make all the difference in a tight race."

Read more from Tim Reid at Reuters

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Republican Foes Try To Brand Romney As Elitist

The labels being attached to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney seem to be straight out of the Democrats' playbook.

Elitist. Job killer. Out of touch.

Using Romney's own words against him, foes of the Republican front-runner and venture capitalist essentially are casting him as an enemy of the middle class in a time of economic peril.

That the accusers are fellow Republicans - Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman - is a reflection of their increasing desperation to stop Romney, and of what analysts say could be a weakness for Romney as the campaign for the November election moves on.

The latest Romney comment to draw fire came on Monday in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Speaking to a business group, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, answered a question about healthcare systems by saying, "I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me."

In heated campaign fueled by sound bites, the context hardly mattered. Soon afterward, Huntsman pounced.

"Governor Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs," said Huntsman, a former Utah governor whose slim hopes in the Republican campaign rest on a strong finish in New Hamshire's primary on Tuesday. "It may be that he's slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now, and that's a dangerous place to be."

But Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist, said the attacks actually might help Romney.

"These seem to be the lines of attack that the Democratic National Committee and President Obama will take to Romney if he becomes the nominee," O'Connell said.

"It's probably better that it is coming out now and not in a general election. This could make him stronger - if he can overcomethem."

Read more from Tim Reid at Reuters

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Is Ron Paul Left Of Obama, Or A Throwback To Ike?

GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul's antiwar stand is considered so out of sync with his party that rival Rick Santorum put him in league with liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich, to the left of President Obama.

But to his supporters, Paul is returning the GOP to its cautious foreign policy roots, articulated in President Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 warning about "the military-industrial complex."

In their view, the Republican Party lost its way starting with the Reagan military build-up in the 1980s and reaching a crescendo with former President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003.

For some voters who once supported Sen. John McCain and George W. Bush, the small-government, antiwar message from Paul, a 76-year-old candidate who critics say looks like he could be feeding pigeons, is compelling.

Establishment Republicans give Paul zero chance of winning the GOP nomination, but the party's neoconservative wing is alarmed enough about his message that former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson accused Paul's supporters of trying to "erase 158 years of Republican Party history," including Abraham Lincoln.

"He really is not resonating with establishment Republicans," who consider Paul's opposition to sanctions on Iran as "extremely dangerous," said GOP analyst Ford O'Connell.

Still, polls show Paul headed for a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, behind Mitt Romney, boosted by the state's open primary that allows independents to vote. Paul doubled his showing in Iowa from four years ago, capturing 21 percent of the vote there on Tuesday.

Read more from Carolyn Lochhead at the San Francisco Chronicle 

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After Poor Iowa Showing, Why Is Perry Still Running?

Only Gov. Rick Perry knows for sure what changed in the 12-hour period between his late-night decision to come back to Texas to reassess his presidential bid and his morningTweet that he was forging ahead to South Carolina.

While the Tuesday night announcement surprised Perry's staffers and supporters — even following a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses — his abrupt and public change of heart Wednesday morning caught them completely off guard.  

So what could he be thinking? We asked seasoned strategists, politicos and Republican experts on the ground in early primary states for their top five theories.

One thing is apparent from Santorum’s strong finish Tuesday night: Social conservatives are pining for an anti-Romney to coalesce behind. Stick around long enough in this GOP horse race and almost every candidate gets a resurgence. That's something GOP strategist O’Connell says former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — who dropped out in August after a third-place showing in the Iowa Straw Poll — “has got to be kicking himself over.”   

“If Tim Pawlenty was still around, he would’ve seen a surge he could’ve capitalized on,” O’Connell said.

He’s not. And that provides an opening for Perry in South Carolina — but only if he plays his cards perfectly, which he has yet to do.

Read more from Emily Ramshaw at The Texas Tribune

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Bachmann Off, Perry On The Republican Rollercoaster

The rough-and-tumble Republican race for the White House became even more entangled on Wednesday when Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann quit and Rick Perry decided to stay in after all.

Bachmann stepped down after a dismal sixth place finish in the Iowa caucuses, which were decided by a difference of only 8 votes out of the 122,000 that were cast.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won Iowa by the tightest of margins over social conservative Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator who had been all but ignored until his poll numbers began to rise a week ago.

As Romney arrived in New Hampshire, where he has a solid campaign infrastructure and is heavily favored to win the state's primary on January 10, he picked up the endorsement of Senator John McCain, who was the party's nominee in 2008.

Throwing political pundits into confusion, Perry announced he is staying in the race for now, and would campaign in New Hampshire and South Carolina, after saying he would reassess his campaign because of a disappointing fifth-place Iowa performance.

The unsettled race for the nomination to oppose Obama in November - which pollster Gallup said was the most topsy-turvy in 50 years - leaves an opening for former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich or Perry to get back to the top if Romney can't connect with more voters.

Both have southern connections - Perry is governor of Texas and Gingrich was a congressman from Georgia - and primaries in two southern states, South Carolina and Florida, are coming up on January 21 and January 31.

Perry, a steady leader in the money stakes, has $3-4 million on hand to fund a multi-state campaign, according to a knowledgeable source, and polls put him more likely than Bachmann to draw social conservatives' support from Santorum.

Gingrich can hope more strong debate performances like those that helped push him into the top tier of candidates in November. There are two more Republican debates in the next week.

"Mitt Romney obviously has a stranglehold on establishment Republicans, but if Mitt wants to wrap this nomination up he has to get beyond establishment Republicans," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

Read more from Eric Johnson and Michelle Nichols at Reuters

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Ford O'Connell At Politico's Arena: Iowa, A Win, Loss Or Draw For Romney?

Last night was a good night for Mitt Romney because he met expectations heading into New Hampshire. On the other hand, last night was a GREAT night for Rick Santorum, who came within eight votes of pulling off one of the greatest political comebacks in recent memory, and jumped into the top tier of Republican presidential candidates.

Can Santorum keep the anti-Romney voting bloc consolidated behind his bid, and can he cobble the campaign resources together necessary for a long protracted primary fight with Mitt Romney? Time will only tell, but the odds are against Santorum.

That said, Team Romney is not going to wait around to find out if Santorum can harness his newfound momentum. Romney’s campaign rightfully knows that a strong showing in New Hampshire is key to maintaining his front-runner status heading into South Carolina, which is relatively uncharted territory for Romney, even with Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement.

Read more from Ford O'Connell At Politico's "The Arena"

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How GOP's Rising Rick Santorum Could Compete Through Super Tuesday

Eight votes. Of the 122,255 votes cast on a frosty January evening in Iowa, that’s all that separated the winner of the state’s storied caucuses, Mitt Romney, from his surging rival, Rick Santorum.  

In an almost eerie coincidence, Mr. Romney won nearly the same percentage of the vote, about 25 percent, as he did in the Iowa caucuses four years ago, when he lost to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. That result reinforces questions about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to grow support among the Republican Party’s conservative base.

But aside from the photo finish, the story of the night was Mr. Santorum. The former senator from Pennsylvania barely had a pulse a month ago and has emerged as the conservative alternative to the more-moderate Romney for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The question for him is whether he can quickly build a national organization and war chest to compete effectively against the well-funded and well-organized Romney.

“If Santorum can get his act together, the GOP primary could certainly go beyond Super Tuesday,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, referring to March 6, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.

A shrinking field is likely to help Santorum. Late Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced he was returning to Texas to reassess his campaign, a signal that he is probably about to drop out of the race. Governor Perry, who stumbled in debates after a promising start to his campaign, finished fifth in Iowa with 10 percent.

Read more from Linda Feldmann at The Christian Science Monitor 

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Analysis: Obama Among The Winners In Iowa

After a dramatic, confusing night of suspense in the Republican Party's Iowa caucuses, the big winner may well have been a Democrat: Barack Obama.

The president's re-election campaign had reason to smile early Wednesday, as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled to a virtual dead heat in the caucuses that kicked off the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, emerges from Iowa with his front-runner status intact, his well-funded campaign ready for a months-long fight.

But his razor-thin margin over Santorum - a social conservative who ran a low-budget campaign with little advertising - reinforces persistent doubts about Romney's ability to win over his party's conservative base.

It also increases the chances that Romney's still-likely march to the Republican nomination will not be the quick kill Romney has hoped for, analysts and strategists said on Wednesday.

For an Obama campaign that has long operated on the assumption that it will face Romney in the November 6 election, that is good news.

When he finished second to Huckabee in Iowa in 2008, Romney won 25 percent of the vote in the state.

On Tuesday he received roughly the same percentage of the vote. Despite being the front-runner in the Republican race, Romney has not risen above 25 percent in national Republican polls.

Many Republican strategists say that is a problem.

"Mitt Romney has flatlined," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist. "Obviously, he emerges as the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. But (Tuesday) was a good night for him, not a great night."

O'Connell said that for Republicans, "the key question is, Can Rick Santorum convince South Carolina and beyond that he has general election appeal? Will the anti-Mitt vote consolidate behind one candidate?"

Romney's team is planning a trip to South Carolina this week, after Romney spends some time campaigning in New Hampshire.

Read more from Tim Reid and Sam Youngman at Reuters

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Republican Field Likely To Look Far Different For Florida Voters

Seven major candidates entered the Iowa caucuses Tuesday, but as many as four could drop out before the GOP nomination battle shifts to Florida Jan. 31.

While Iowa was not expected to anoint a frontrunner as it has occasionally in the past, it will start a winnowing process that New Hampshire and South Carolina will continue over the next three weeks, dramatically reshaping the field.

When Florida votes, it would not be a surprise to see Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry out of the running, said David Johnson, an Atlanta-based Republican political consultant.

“There is no way they all survive to Florida,” Johnson said of the current field.

If the field is trimmed as expected, Florida could be in the same position as in 2008, when it catapulted John McCain to the Republican nomination.

Florida may loom largest for Mitt Romney, said Ford O’Connell, a veteran Republican campaign strategist from Virginia. O’Connell said that if Romney wins Florida, it could secure his path to the nomination. But losing Florida would continue the narrative of a candidate struggling to win the base, which would almost assure a drawn out fight with alternative conservatives.

Romney must hope that Perry and Gingrich remain in the race and split the “anti-Mitt” vote. If one is out by Florida, it could allow voters wary of Romney to unite behind one candidate, O’Connell said.

The only certainty for Florida’s ballot is that Romney and Ron Paul will be fighting for the Sunshine State. Both campaigns have the staff network, volunteers and money to push to Florida and beyond.

Read more from Jeremy Wallace at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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Ford O'Connell At Politico's Arena: Is Santorum's Surge For Real?

If the social conservative vote consolidates behind Rick Santorum, it may well propel him to a top-two finish in Iowa. That said, Santorum will not win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, which is still Mitt Romney's to lose.

Read more from Ford O'Connell at Politico's "The Arena"

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