- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2012

Newt Gingrich says he is the conservative choice in the 2012 presidential race, but five states into the campaign, Mitt Romney has won more self-identified conservative voters, according to an analysis by The Washington Times of entrance and exit polls.

Mr. Romney capped off that showing with a win in Nevada that included support from a majority of self-identified conservatives, a feat neither Mr. Gingrich nor the other two remaining candidates have been able to accomplish.

“He may be more conservative than Romney, but that does not mean that he is winning over more conservative voters,” said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. “The primary voters are not aligning themselves solely on the basis of ideology. They are looking as well to electability, character, leadership ability, among other factors. So being to the right of the front-runner is not enough to convince conservative voters to pick a Gingrich.”

The data out of Nevada added to the mounting evidence that shows Mr. Gingrich is struggling to convince conservative voters that he is more ideologically in sync with them than Mr. Romney and represents the party’s best chance of unseating President Obama in the general election.

Not adding up

More than 2.6 million voters have cast ballots or caucused in the Republican nomination battle, and about 68 percent of them said they were “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative,” according to an analysis by The Times of exit and entrance polling conducted for the major broadcast networks and the Associated Press.

Of those conservative voters, Mr. Romney has won the backing of almost 37 percent, while Mr. Gingrich has won almost 35 percent. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has received about 17 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul of Texas received about 9 percent.

Among conservatives, Mr. Romney outperformed Mr. Gingrich in Iowa and in New Hampshire, while the Georgian briefly turned the tables in South Carolina. Since then, Mr. Romney regained the upper hand with back-to-back decisive victories in Florida and Nevada.

Exit polls in Nevada showing him winning just over 50 percent of voters who identified themselves as “very” or “somewhat” conservative and easily defeating Mr. Gingrich — 49 percent to 24 percent — among very conservative voters.

Those results signal trouble for Mr. Gingrich, who has argued in recent weeks that if conservatives stop splitting their votes between him and Mr. Santorum that “Gov. Romney at that point will start losing badly.”

But vote tallies from the opening contests suggest it may not be that simple.

To match Mr. Romney’s vote total to this point in the race, Mr. Gingrich would have needed to win roughly seven of every 10 Santorum supporters — a tall order for a group that includes many evangelical and faith-based voters who remain wary of Mr. Gingrich’s past marital infidelities.

The Santorum split

Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, predicted that if Mr. Santorum pulls out of the race, most of his supporters will split between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich — but some might not vote at all.

“The split isn’t 80-20 to Gingrich,” Mr. Sabato said. “The estimates vary, but Gingrich would be lucky to get even 60 percent of Santorum supporters. Newt might even get less than a majority. You can argue about the specific proportions, but there is no question about one thing: Chances for a conservative consolidation behind Gingrich are nil. It isn’t going to happen. Gingrich has too many critics on the right. Some regard him as an inconsistent conservative, while others have had conflicts with him or dislike other aspects of his past.”

Mr. Gingrich, though, shrugged off Mr. Romney’s strong performance among Nevada conservatives during an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying that “this is the state he won last time, and he won it this time.”

“Our goal is to get to Super Tuesday, where we’re in much more favorable territory,” he said, arguing that he expects to catch up with Mr. Romney by the time of the Texas primary on April 3, in part by highlighting that “real conservatives” like himself have been fighting to pull people out of poverty, while Mr. Romney “doesn’t worry much about the very poor because they have a safety net.”

Courting conservatives

Laying claim to the conservative throne is a tried-and-true strategy in GOP primaries, where candidates are eager to win over the grass-roots voters who play such an active role in determining the outcomes of the contests.

As a result, Mr. Romney has worked to convince voters that, after staking out a pro-choice position earlier in his career, he is now reliably pro-life. He also has portrayed Mr. Gingrich as unreliable and too erratic to lead and highlighted the 2008 global-warming awareness TV spot he cut with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as Mr. Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant that many conservatives blame for the housing crisis.

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, has built his campaign on the notion that he is cut from the same cloth as former President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, while casting Mr. Romney as a “moderate.”

He drilled home that message on the television talk-show circuit Sunday, warning that Mr. Romney’s claim to the conservative mantle is based on false advertising. He said Mr. Romney, as governor, “was pro-abortion, he was pro-gun control, he was pro-tax increase.”

“The challenge is to say, ‘Do you really want to go into a fall election with a moderate candidate?’ The last two times we nominated a moderate, 1996 and 2008, we lost badly,” he said, alluding to the failed presidential bids of former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both of whom have endorsed Mr. Romney. “A conservative candidate can offer a much greater contrast with President Obama, can offer a much bigger difference.”

So far, though, conservatives seem more inclined to support Mr. Romney, leaving Mr. Gingrich looking for answers as the race heads toward contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine.

Gingrich is trying to find different angles around Romney’s growing momentum so he can head him off at the pass in upcoming primary states,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant. “According to the polls, it isn’t clear that he is the conservative alternative; rather, he’s trying to say something to muddy the waters.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this reportfrom Nevada.