FIELDS: Ringside with a split decision

Conservatives are getting restless for a winner

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The Republicans still have a lot of bullets in the magazine. Mitt Romney’s tin ear, Rick Santorum’s gag reflex, Newt Gingrich’s endless pomposity and Ron Paul’s narrow-minded consistency all come accompanied by big feet to shoot at. You can’t blame the Democrats for putting in a call to the caterer for a November party. Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich all promise to rally around the ultimate winner, but fear grows in the not-so-grand old party that they’re encouraging independent voters, and maybe a lot of the faithful, to stay home on Nov. 6. But there may be nothing to fear but fear itself. When Hillary Rodham Clinton lost a brutal fight for the Democratic nomination four years ago, many women were so angry they vowed never to vote for Barack Obama. But they did, and the rest is unhappy history. When this year’s campaign devolves to a one-on-one race, the Republicans, too, can get over their snits and pouts and galvanize themselves.

The Reagan precedent may also apply. Mr. Romney is dogged by the complaint that he’s simply “not conservative enough.” That’s what they said about Ronald Reagan as governor of California, where he presided over enactment of much liberal legislation, including a permissive abortion law. But when he became president of the United States, he defined “conservative.”

Mr. Romney didn’t help his case with his description of himself as a “severe conservative.” Methinks the gentleman doth boast too much, but Reagan, too, embraced the conservative label in words long before deeds. The Gipper also had his gaffes along the way, blaming trees for smog and telling a funny story about the mafia that terrified his aides that he had lost the Italian-American vote with one joke. The Gipper sprang from the rich and glamorous old Hollywood crowd, where the only working-class blokes in Tinseltown lived in the imagination of moviemakers.

The Gipper’s conservatism, like Mitt Romney‘s, was always more fiscal than social, and he persuaded voters that he understood what was wrong with the economy and how to fix it. He had the gift of returning criticism with wit and humor. When he was scolded for calling the recession a depression, he snapped back: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. The recovery will be when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

Like the Gipper, Mr. Romney rarely commits a gaffe on the economy. He talks up making it easier for entrepreneurs to start and run a business, and making it big enough to hire others. His call for a leaner government and less spending puts the focus on the huge debt dragging America down. If Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan, neither was Mr. Reagan at this stage of the 1980 campaign.

It’s a given that the Republican Party is badly split. Both political parties have their left/right extremes, but the Republican split is more prominent today because President Obama stands unopposed, armed with unique presidential perks and powers. He pre-empted attention on Super Tuesday with a press conference, his first in five months. “I understand there are some political contests going on tonight,” he said wryly, and wished Mr. Romney good luck with a devilish smile. That’s playing smart politics with power.

He scolded the Republican contenders for beating the drums of war, but that was a reminder of his vow in the 2008 campaign to sit down to talk to the Iranians, as if having a beer with old pals. Four years later, he says military force against Iran is an option, maybe.

The rap on Mr. Romney is that he can’t seal the deal while Rick Santorum continues to thrill the Tea Partyers, stirring a brew with lots of lemons. He lost women big in Michigan with his tedious tutorial on bedroom ethics. He took the focus away from religious liberty, where it properly belongs, in the debate over the president’s contraceptives mandate and revived public wariness of a Catholic president, a prejudice we thought John F. Kennedy had put to rest. He contributed to Mr. Obama’s class warfare with a suggestion that a college education is a conceit of snobs. That seems to have gone over well with the working-class voters in Ohio, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be a winning strategy elsewhere.

We’ve all got ringside seats, and the bare knuckles are drawing blood. But the crowd is getting restless, waiting for the Massachusetts mauler to land the knockout punch. There’s no crying in baseball, and ultimately, there’s no split decision in politics.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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