Mitt Romney's second go-round at a presidential run is not going so well.
Nine states have voted so far, and in six of them the former Massachusetts governor has shed supporters who voted for him in 2008, winning fewer votes in each of those states than he did last time.
It's the latest signal that this year's race is unlike any other in recent memory, even though it follows the familiar Republican pattern of an heir apparent and a set of credible but outmatched challengers.
"Romney doesn't seem to have a cause," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "There's no Romney faction in the Republican Party. John McCain was able to present himself as the champion of political reform. [Ronald] Reagan was the champion of conservatives. Romney is trying to portray himself as a generic Republican, and I think a lot of Republicans regard him as a resident alien in the conservative movement, not as a full-fledged citizen."
The Republican Party has had an affinity for nominating do-over candidates. Five of the past six non-incumbent nominees were repeat contenders: Richard M. Nixon, Reagan, Bob Dole, Mr. McCain and George H.W. Bush. The only exception in the past 50 years was Mr. Bush's son, George W. Bush, in 2000.
Each of those previous do-overs did much better in their final campaigns: Reagan in 1980 and the elder Mr. Bush in 1988 improved their counts over their previous runs in every one of the first eight states to vote. Mr. Dole did better in all but one of the first eight, and Mr. McCain did better in six of the first eight races in 2008.
Mr. Romney has done worse in caucuses in Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota and Maine, and also in Missouri's primary — though that contest was nonbinding. In Minnesota, Mr. Romney won less than a third of the votes he won there in 2008, while in Colorado he won 30 percent fewer votes.
Still, when all of the states are combined, Mr. Romney has won more individual votes at this point in the race than Mr. McCain won in his successful 2008 nomination bid. With turnout running behind 2008's total, Mr. Romney's share of the vote is significantly higher — 39 percent — than Mr. McCain's 34 percent.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who is backing Mr. Romney, said this year's race has "the most wide-open field we've ever had."
He said Mr. Romney is still in the best position to win because he has done the best job of putting together a national campaign. Mr. Gregg said the rest of the field is remarkably weak compared with the competition the eventual nominees faced in some of those earlier races.
"This is very different than any other primary that I've been involved in, and I've been involved in these since '76, when I worked for Reagan, because of the fact that the field is so open and because of the fact that the field with the exception of Romney is so weak."
Mr. Romney has performed worst in caucuses, where hard-core party activists make up the electorate. He has shed voters in every single caucus state compared with 2008.
But in primaries, with the exception of Missouri's nonbinding contest, he has improved in every state. That includes more than doubling his total in South Carolina and better than 25 percent increases in New Hampshire and Florida.
The vast majority of the contests going forward are primaries, which should boost the former Massachusetts governor.
Still, with the exception of Mr. McCain, no other front-runner has been so weak this deep in the race. Part of the problem is the number of people who voted for Mr. Romney four years ago but cannot bring themselves to do it again.
"It's not that I don't like Romney, it's just that I felt Newt Gingrich had bolder solutions, and we're in a bigger crisis now," said Kelly Clem-Rickon, who backed the former House speaker in Florida's primary this year. "I'm looking for someone that's aggressive, that's gutsy, that's bold, and I think Newt Gingrich is the best for that."
Several voters out West, meanwhile, said they backed Mr. Romney in 2008 because he was the conservative alternative to Mr. McCain in that race. This year, they have chosen between Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich, both of whom they say outstrip Mr. Romney when it comes to conservative credentials.
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