After all the hand-wringing and rancor, the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Republican primary came to an abrupt, if unofficial, conclusion this week. On paper, 20 state contests and two challengers remain. But Rick Santorum’s suspension Tuesday of his second-place campaign removed the last, best challenge to Mitt Romney. Barring tragedy or scandal, the former Massachusetts governor will be the GOP standard-bearer against Barack Obama come November.
Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul pledge to soldier on toward Tampa and this summer’s GOP convention, but Romney has earned the right to begin running against Obama instead of his fellow Republicans. His biggest bit of unfinished primary business is whether the 60 percent of GOP voters who chose a candidate other than Romney will transfer their loyalty to him without some wooing. If the general election becomes a matter of which party can fire up its base more, can Romney inspire the kind of conservative turnout needed to win?
Georgia, where Romney finished a solid but distant second to favorite son Gingrich, is a good testing ground for those questions.
Four years ago, John McCain won our state narrowly by recent standards, with just a 5-percentage-point margin over Obama. But the closer margin owed to larger turnout among black voters supporting Obama; the electorate was almost as conservative and a tad more evangelical as it was four years earlier when George W. Bush was re-elected.
But this year, and Romney? “I definitely think he’s got some challenges to overcome,” says Kay Godwin, a co-founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action and a key GOP activist in South Georgia.
“People honestly do not see him as conservative. We see it a lot with what he says, but we’ve not seen it lived out in action, and we’re getting a little bit wiser. But at this point, our goal is Obama has to go. It’s my number-one goal, period. … At this particular moment in time, I think people are trying their best to settle into this [with Romney as the apparent nominee]. And I just hope and pray they can. But there’s so much skepticism out there, time will tell.”
Julianne Thompson, state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, says she does see Georgia’s grassroots activists coming to accept Romney.
“I think most people see the bigger picture here. It’s what I hear from a lot of tea-party people, I can tell you that … they’re looking toward November and want to concentrate on Barack Obama and really are ready to be done with the primary.”
Thompson says Romney’s choice of running mate will be critical to solidifying conservative support here.
“There are a lot of great names out there that have been put out,” she says, mentioning Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida specifically. “I personally like [former Arkansas Gov.] Mike Huckabee a lot, though I’m not sure he’s interested in doing anything like that. But I really do like him and he would be a good contrast, and we would be hitting all across the Republican spectrum if we had a vice-presidential candidate like that.”
Godwin also mentions those three names, along with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (who just might be my own choice to join a Romney ticket).
“If he puts somebody on there that the conservatives trust, that would make a big difference,” Godwin says. “It can’t be [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie … it’s got to be somebody from the heartland, the conservative movement, so that we’ll get behind him with everything we’ve got.”
Chris Perkins, the state director for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, strikes a more optimistic note. Romney, he predicts, “will do better than McCain did four years ago.”
Why? “Mostly because I think there are people who voted for Obama four years ago who are going to change their mind. Hard-core Democrats will vote for Obama, hard-core Republicans will vote for Romney — but there are people in the middle who are going to want change, or they’re not happy with the way things have gone under Obama.”
The GOP primary dragged on longer than some people would have liked, but it still wrapped up with almost five months to go before Tampa. That ought to leave Romney time to wrap up some loose ends with conservative voters — and ensure the election is a referendum on Obama, not his own reliability.
– By Kyle Wingfield