- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Remember all the pundits who warned that the poisonous Republican presidential primary battles threatened to divide the GOP and seriously weaken their nominee?

They were wrong.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who will be the party’s 2012 presidential standard-bearer, has escalating party support and has taken the lead in the head-to-head matchup polls against President Obama.

It didn’t make the network news shows Monday night, but the Gallup Poll officially began its daily tracking polls in the presidential race this week. Its survey of registered voters across the country showed Mr. Romney with a 5 percentage point lead over President Obama - 48 percent to 43 percent.

What is notable is that Mr. Romney led Mr. Obama among independent, swing voters - the politically unaffiliated people who most likely will decide this election - by 45 percent to 39 percent.

Equally revealing was Gallup’s finding that Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama “are supported by 90 percent of their respective partisans.” So much for a divided party.

One of the most remarkable attributes of the modern presidential primary system is that no matter how fiercely and bitterly the warring factions battle one another over the nomination, in the end, they usually put aside the political feuds of the past and rally around their presumptive nominee. That’s what is happening now.

Once former Sen. Rick Santorum dropped out of the race this month, Republicans were left with only one overriding focus: defeating Mr. Obama. He is the unbreakable glue that is uniting the GOP behind Mr. Romney’s candidacy.

This does not mean that Mr. Romney hasn’t a lot of work to do among Republicans who were not his supporters in the early primaries - especially women.

But a Washington Post/ABC News Poll showed Tuesday that Republicans were rallying behind Mr. Romney and that he was consolidating the GOP’s conservative base. This poll also found him “picking up significant support from GOP men.”

“Sixty-nine percent of Republicans - including 80 percent of conservative Republicans - now hold favorable views of the former governor,” the poll report said.

(Note: The Post/ABC survey is based on a sampling of “adults,” which is a much less accurate reading of election trends than the Gallup poll of registered voters or, best of all, likely voters.)

But Mr. Romney has his work cut out for him among female voters and Hispanics, among whom Mr. Obama has strong support. The Post survey reported that 58 percent of women hold favorable views of the president, while Mr. Romney is seen unfavorably by 52 percent of women.

Mr. Romney has stepped up his political appeals to female voters on economic issues, pointing out that no group has suffered more under the Obama economy than women, who have experienced severe job losses and brutal poverty rates.

Hispanics, the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, represent another hurdle for Mr. Romney, though there are indications that a large chunk of their vote is up for grabs on the issues of jobs and immigration.

Seventy-six percent of Hispanic voters have favorable views of Mr. Obama compared with 33 percent for Mr. Romney, the Post/ABC poll found. What is significant is that a relatively large bloc of Hispanics - nearly 3 in 10 - say they haven’t formed an opinion of Mr. Romney.

President Bush captured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, and John McCain won 31 percent of the bloc in 2008. So there’s a larger base vote that Mr. Romney can win with a strong economic appeal to this pivotal bloc of voters in critical swing states.

Outside of black voters, no minority group has a higher unemployment rate than Hispanic-Americans. Fewer minority groups have been as successful in creating small businesses.

Republican insiders say that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is popular in the Hispanic community, is urging Mr. Romney’s high command to make a major political appeal to the Hispanic vote. Plans are being made to do just that, possibly with Mr. Bush as a leading spokesman.

If Republicans can win 40 percent of this vote, Mr. Obama will be a one-term president.

Mr. Romney’s early lead in the polls may not tell us much about the direction of the campaign in the months to come.

A nationwide Gallup poll conducted April 20-22, 1992, showed President Bush leading with 41 percent of the vote, compared with 26 percent for Bill Clinton.

In early April 1980, Gallup had President Carter leading former California Gov. Ronald Reagan by a substantial margin - 42 percent to 34 percent.

But in the end, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Carter lost their bids for a second term.

The economy is going to shape and drive this election cycle. It appears to be slowing down right now, and there is nothing Mr. Obama can do about it.

Economists generally have lowered their economic growth forecasts for the year to little more than a feeble 2 percent range, after limping through last year at 1.7 percent. That is not nearly enough for job creation to keep pace with population growth.

The 120,000 jobs created in March stunned the White House, and I’m told that Mr. Obama’s economic advisers do not expect the jobs picture to improve dramatically in the next several months.

That is why the White House has switched its election focus away from economic growth and job creation to tax fairness and gimmicky soak-the-rich tax hikes like the “Buffett rule” that failed Monday in the Senate.

Mr. Obama’s national job approval rating is a mediocre 46 percent, with 48 percent disapproving of his presidential performance.

With jobs in short supply and a weak economy running nearly on empty, Mitt Romney has plenty of reasons to like his chances in November.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.