- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There were two notable changes in the contest for the presidency this week. Barack Obama’s job approval score rose and the race for the Republican nomination appears to be between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

It would be premature to say that Mr. Obama’s prospects of winning a second term have improved much, but a Gallup poll released Thursday shows his job approval score creeping up to 46 percent and his disapproval score inching down to 47 percent.

He is still in danger of becoming a one-term president, but there are a million miles in political terms between now and Nov. 6, and his job approval numbers do appear to be tightening. Also, the campaign for the White House will very likely tighten up in the months to come, depending on the GOP race and what happens with the economy.

Tuesday’s Iowa Republican caucuses have winnowed the field to two major candidates, although this may change in the primary contests later this month.

Libertarian Ron Paul finished in a disappointing third place. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich fell further to the back of the pack with 13 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, at 10 percent, is all but finished, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota dropped out of the race after she finished in last place.

Mr. Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, is now the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, though he still faces an uphill battle to replicate his Iowa performance in the primaries to come.

Mr. Santorum surged to the front of the pack on a wave of evangelical support on the social and religious issues that he has championed throughout his career. His supporters in Iowa were the same voters who lifted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the Hawkeye State in 2008 before his campaign ran out of steam in the New Hampshire primary.

Mr. Santorum pulled off his razor-thin second-place finish by virtually living in Iowa over the past six months, visiting all 99 counties in a pickup truck, preaching against abortion, homosexual marriage and the coarsening decline of our culture.

The weak, jobless Obama economy is issue No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in this election cycle, but Mr. Santorum ran as the Republican field’s fiercest social-issues warrior.

His first act as president, he said, would be to sign an executive order banning all federal financial support for abortions.

But can that message draw similar support in the party primaries next week in New Hampshire, where Mr. Romney has a virtually prohibitive lead? Or later this month in South Carolina and Florida, where the unemployment rate is still stuck at a catastrophic 10 percent?

While Mr. Santorum focused his shoestring campaign on Iowa, he does not have a national campaign organization to match Mr. Romney‘s, nor does he have access to the kind of financial support the former Massachusetts governor will have over the ensuing months.

Moreover, Mr. Romney is expected to come out of the New Hampshire primary with the wind at his back, and that will give him advantages in January’s two other primaries.

Gallup did some historical research this week on how winners in New Hampshire fared after its primaries, and here’s what it found: “Since 1976 - the first year in the modern nominating era in which there was a competitive Republican contest - the leader after New Hampshire has ultimately won the nomination.”

Even so, Mr. Romney faces daunting difficulties after the Granite State’s contest.

He has been running behind Mr. Gingrich in South Carolina as well as in Florida, although that was before the former House speaker’s decline amid revelations that he made a fortune as an adviser-lobbyist for the federal government’s huge residential mortgage agency, Freddie Mac, which was at the core of the subprime housing scandal.

Could Mr. Gingrich, who now threatens to take off the gloves and strike back at Mr. Romney’s attack ads, make a comeback?

It’s possible, although Gallup reported Thursday that its polling “shows Romney (26 percent) holding a slight edge over Newt Gingrich (22 percent) with Ron Paul a distance third at 13 percent.”

Gallup said Mr. Santorum was next at 8 percent, although his numbers have risen in recent days, averaging 12 percent on Monday and Tuesday. Post-Iowa polls undoubtedly will show his numbers climbing.

Still, the question about Mr. Santorum is whether he has staying power and the ability to reach out to independents who likely will decide this election.

His home state of Pennsylvania will be a key battleground this fall, but voters in that swing state fired him by a nearly 18-point margin in his 2006 re-election bid.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of Mr. Obama’s uptick to 46 percent in his job approval ratings, after many months in the low 40s? Some of it may be because of a slight improvement in the consumer confidence surveys and a feeling in parts of the electorate that the economy is improving slightly.

Some of it may have to do with dissident constituencies in his own party who are coming home and supporting him again.

But overall political trends and an anemic economy keep Mr. Obama in a hostile environment.

Last month, Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, the news media’s go-to guy on the economy, gave this dismal forecast for 2012: “Since businesses are expected to remain cautious, 2012 is unlikely to be a breakout year for the economy … thus there will be little reduction in unemployment.

“How long it will take to get the business cycle back into gear isn’t yet apparent, but it seems unlikely to happen until after the 2012 election. Perhaps it will be the election itself,” he added.

Translation: Lower unemployment and a much stronger economy aren’t going to happen until Mr. Obama leaves office.

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

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