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May 17, 2011, 2:32 p.m.

Ex-Sen. Rick San­tor­um (R-PA) “heads the lineup” for Corner­stone Ac­tion NH, which cel­eb­rates its 10th an­niversary with a fun­drais­ing din­ner on 10/15.

The event will hon­or re­tir­ing GOP state Sen. Sheila Roberge (Landrig­an, Nashua Tele­graph, 10/8).

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Re­pub­lic­ans, who only weeks ago could not ima­gine how Pres­id­ent Obama could be reelec­ted, sure are try­ing hard to make it hap­pen. Through 11 primar­ies and caucuses go­ing in­to Su­per Tues­day, Mitt Rom­ney had ac­cu­mu­lated more del­eg­ates than Rick San­tor­um, Newt Gin­grich, and Ron Paul com­bined. Again on Tues­day night, among the 10 states vot­ing or hold­ing caucuses, Rom­ney won more del­eg­ates than the oth­er three can­did­ates com­bined. There is no longer a plaus­ible math­em­at­ic­al pos­sib­il­ity for San­tor­um, Gin­grich, or Paul to reach the 1,144 del­eg­ates needed to win the nom­in­a­tion; it is also too late for someone else to get in­to this race and win it. And yet, Re­pub­lic­an voters seem either un­will­ing or in­cap­able of bring­ing this to a close. Yes, Rom­ney is win­ning, but in a polit­ic­ally de­bil­it­at­ing way. His pain­ful slog raises the ques­tion: Will he be in any shape to com­pete in the fall?

A long fight is not, by defin­i­tion, de­struct­ive. The epic Barack Obama-Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton battle was mean and per­son­al. It came down to the fi­nal primar­ies in June. But it was very dif­fer­ent from this fight, be­cause it was much less about ideo­logy. It was not really a con­test to see who could out­flank the oth­er on the left; neither Obama nor Clin­ton needed to ali­en­ate the between-the-40-yard-lines in­de­pend­ent voters who mat­ter so much in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. It was more a fight over vis­ion, gen­er­a­tions, demo­graph­ics, and style. It was more an in­tern­al party fight over per­son­al pref­er­ence. And neither of them ap­peared to be more elect­able in Novem­ber than the oth­er.

This fight is very dif­fer­ent. This year, it seems that Re­pub­lic­ans have be­come self-ab­sorbed and ob­sessed with their con­ser­vat­ive base. They seem un­able to ac­know­ledge or un­will­ing to care that the rest of the elect­or­ate is watch­ing and get­ting turned off by over­heated rhet­or­ic al­most guar­an­teed to ali­en­ate all but the most con­ser­vat­ive voters.

At the start of this cam­paign, most in­de­pend­ent voters, who gen­er­ally fol­low polit­ics less avidly than par­tis­ans do, saw Rom­ney as something of a blank slate. Now, poll after poll shows that his num­bers among in­de­pend­ents have taken a beat­ing. In an ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post na­tion­al sur­vey earli­er this month, Rom­ney had a healthy 60 per­cent fa­vor­able and 29 per­cent un­fa­vor­able rat­ing among Re­pub­lic­ans. Among in­de­pend­ents, it was 32 per­cent fa­vor­able and 48 per­cent un­fa­vor­able. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll among Re­pub­lic­ans, 58 per­cent had a pos­it­ive view of Rom­ney, with 23 per­cent neut­ral and 18 per­cent neg­at­ive. But among all voters, it was 28 per­cent pos­it­ive, 28 per­cent neut­ral, and 39 per­cent neg­at­ive. When this hap­pens to the most “elect­able” can­did­ate, it is not good for the party.

If you sub­scribe to the ref­er­en­dum school of pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, as I do, you be­lieve that when a pres­id­ent runs for a second term the elec­tion is first and fore­most about the in­cum­bent. It only be­comes a choice elec­tion if the chal­lenger is either an in­cred­ibly strong can­did­ate or very po­lar­iz­ing. When that hap­pens, the in­cum­bent’s per­form­ance and the state of the na­tion, par­tic­u­larly the eco­nomy, no longer are the main fo­cus.

In a gen­er­al elec­tion, San­tor­um, Gin­grich, or Paul would def­in­itely be “choice” can­did­ates: stark con­trasts with Obama who prob­ably wouldn’t work out so well for the GOP. Rom­ney is con­ven­tion­al enough that an Obama-Rom­ney fight would be more a ref­er­en­dum on Obama.

Rom­ney has spent the last six months try­ing to be a hard-core, “severely con­ser­vat­ive” ideo­logue. But he’s not very good at play­ing that role, simply be­cause that’s not who he is. It re­quires far great­er dra­mat­ic tal­ent than Mitt Rom­ney pos­sesses to ef­fect­ively pre­tend to be something he’s not. This is one reas­on why he has had such dif­fi­culty put­ting this nom­in­a­tion away. Quiet, main­stream com­pet­ence is not a qual­ity that Re­pub­lic­ans are fall­ing all over them­selves to em­brace in 2012, even if it’s un­doubtedly the best tick­et to win­ning over the key swing voters in the middle.

 The eco­nomy is bet­ter than it was four months ago. Obama’s ap­prov­al num­bers, con­sumer con­fid­ence, and the key right-dir­ec­tion/wrong-track poll num­bers are bet­ter than they were last fall. But if you just look at those met­rics, Obama is any­thing but a cinch to win reelec­tion. For the months of Janu­ary and Feb­ru­ary, he av­er­aged an ap­prov­al rat­ing of 45 per­cent and a dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing of 47 per­cent. For the week of Feb. 27-March 4, Gal­lup gave him 45 per­cent ap­prov­al and 48 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al. Yes, oc­ca­sion­ally, there is a poll that shows him reach­ing 50 per­cent ap­prov­al, with 45 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al, as the new NBC/WSJ poll did. But 50 per­cent ap­prov­al is the bare min­im­um rat­ing a pres­id­ent can have if he ex­pects to be reelec­ted.

Those num­bers point to a situ­ation where Obama’s odds of reelec­tion are bet­ter than they were but not where they need to be. The only way you can pro­nounce Obama the fa­vor­ite is to factor in the rather con­sid­er­able dam­age that the GOP is in­flict­ing on it­self. And right now, Re­pub­lic­ans don’t seem in­clined to stop.

There are so many land mines between now and Elec­tion Day for Obama: Ir­an and Is­rael and else­where in the Middle East; the im­pact of Middle East troubles on oil and gas­ol­ine prices; the sov­er­eign-debt crisis and re­ces­sion in Europe; a glob­al eco­nom­ic slow­down; and the pos­sible col­lapse of a European fin­an­cial in­sti­tu­tion or two. But when you look at what is hap­pen­ing on the Re­pub­lic­ans’ side, you kind of won­der wheth­er they want to win or are hap­pi­er just fight­ing among them­selves.

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