Echoing a worn adage, Mitt Romney said on Saturday night after conceding defeat to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary that a longer, more competitive battle for the Republican presidential nomination would only make him stronger.
"I don't shrink from competition. I embrace it. I believe competition makes us all better," Romney told supporters.
That's a standard talking point from a frontrunner who hasn't yet locked up the nomination. But in fact, the weaknesses exposed in Romney's candidacy by the South Carolina results and, perhaps more important, in the days leading up to the primary, are cause for concern among Republicans, including some of Romney's own supporters.
More than one-third of South Carolina primary voters identified themselves as very conservative, according to exit polls conducted on behalf of the television networks and the Associated Press. Mitt Romney won only 20 percent of their votes, compared to Newt Gingrich's 45 percent.
Among the 60 percent of the electorate who are evangelical Christians, Romney was able to grab roughly 20 percent of the vote, while Gingrich captured 40 percent.
These groups of voters are part of the core of the Republican Party. But it's clear that Romney, still the favorite for the party's 2012 presidential nomination, could enter the general election campaign without the full embrace of his party's base. That does not put him in the position he needs to occupy in order to woo independent voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum.
The soft support among the Republican base is of less concern to Romney's high command than the narrative beginning to take shape around him--a storyline being fed by both the Obama and Gingrich campaigns. It paints Romney as a wealthy corporate raider who is out of touch with the economic reality faced by most Americans.
Team Romney is convinced, with historic trends and current data to back it up, that the antipathy toward Obama among Republicans will be sufficient to rally the party faithful around Romney in the fall. Anti-Obama energy, however, will not solve Romney's inability to put his income tax issue to bed or to break the perception that he struggles to connect with the needs of middle-class families.
The Romney campaign is quick to point out that winning campaigns are those that survive tests like this. That's true. A presidential nomination is never handed to the frontrunner without him (or someday her) being knocked back on his heels once or twice.
But there is a substantial difference between what's happening with Romney and the challenges that Barack Obama and George W. Bush faced. When Obama emerged from a long and bruising battle with Hillary Clinton, he did so looking like a dragon slayer. And the body blow that George W. Bush took from John McCain came from the center, and allowed Bush to shore up his strength with the Republican base.
Yes, if Romney emerges as the Republican nominee, he will appear as a winner who overcame significant challenges. And an elongated nomination fight may improve his ability to take a punch. But those strengths will come at the expense of exposing not only Romney's soft support among evangelical Christians and very conservative voters, but also the concern among donors and establishment figures in the party that he is being defined not by himself and his team, but by his opponents.
Read more coverage of the 2012 South Carolina primary at Yahoo News.
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