- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

CHICAGO — Mitt Romney’s lopsided victory in Illinois this week showed again that he’s hard to beat in states with more moderate, less evangelical-minded voters — a good sign for the former Massachusetts governor when that describes most of the big prizes left on the Republican primary schedule.

In the weeks ahead, most of the delegate-rich states left on the map more closely resemble the electorates in Ohio and Florida, where Mr. Romney won, than the voters in Georgia and Mississippi, where evangelicals shied away from the former governor.

In the 16 states where exit polls have been conducted, Mr. Romney won caucuses or primaries in the 10 states where evangelical or born-again Christians made up less than half of the voters.

It was a different story in the other six races where voters were polled. In Iowa, where evangelicals make up 56 percent, and in Mississippi, where that percentage jumped to 80, Mr. Romney lost to Rick Santorum.

One development that should help, even among evangelicals, came Wednesday when the Romney campaign scored a coveted endorsement from Jeb Bush, brother and son of former presidents.

Making his endorsement one day after Mr. Romney’s impressive win in Illinois, the former Florida governor said it was time for the GOP to rally around Mr. Romney.

In Illinois, just 4 in 10 voters identified themselves as evangelical or born-again.

The victory helped Mr. Romney extend his delegate count to 563, more than 300 ahead of Mr. Santorum and well on the way to the 1,144 needed to sew up the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August.

“Romney is going to win this thing,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist. “Evangelicals are not in his camp, but they don’t control a majority of the delegates.”

If the Romney pattern holds, though, look for a tough day for the former governor in Saturday’s Louisiana primary, where nearly 6 in 10 voters leaned evangelical in 2008, helping former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee outperform Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s eventual nominee.

The RealClearPolitics website’s average of polls out of Louisiana show Mr. Santorum leading Mr. Romney by 8 percentage points, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose two wins in Georgia and South Carolina were aided by a large evangelical turnout, sitting in a close third place.

Mr. Gingrich has been touting an energy plan that he says would help the oil-rich region and drive prices at the pump south of $2.50 a gallon.

But, as with Alabama and Mississippi, Mr. Romney will benefit from the proportional awarding of delegates, giving the former governor a chance to grab at least some of the 46 delegates at stake.

After Saturday, Mr. Romney is in more hospitable territory, starting with the three winner-take-all contests on April 3 — Wisconsin, the District of Columbia and Maryland, where more than 98 delegates are up for grabs.

Exit polling in 2008 in Maryland and Wisconsin showed evangelicals didn’t play a large role in those states. The same is true for New York, California and New Jersey, which all have large delegate totals and have yet to vote.

Barry C. Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said that if the trend from the nomination contests holds true, then Mr. Santorum “will not score well” in Wisconsin.

“In the 2008 Republican presidential primary, only 38 percent called themselves born-again or evangelical,” Mr. Burden said. “Perhaps that was partly a result of Huckabee not generating as much attention at that point in the race, but I would not suggest the percentage to be much higher this time around.”

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said that at this point in the race it is clear that the momentum has pivoted primarily on who votes — not the issues being espoused on the campaign trail.

“This has actually been a fairly easy contest to project,” Mr. Sabato said. “Single issues aren’t propelling the candidates; overall impressions among key constituencies in the GOP are. Mitt gets wealthy, college-educated, non-evangelicals including Catholics, and the Catholic Santorum gets middle-class, high school-educated evangelical Protestants. Gingrich also used to do well in Santorum’s base before this became a two-man race.”

The biggest pothole on Mr. Romney’s path to the nomination remains Texas, where Mr. Santorum is polling well ahead of the field. With a large evangelical voter population and the second highest number of delegates of any state, Texas hasn’t warmed to Mr. Romney - but Texas also awards its delegates proportionally, which will soften any blow Team Romney might be facing in the Lone Star State.

Many evangelicals in the states that have voted so far have questioned Mr. Romney’s commitment to their core issues. They particularly questioned his conversion from pro-choice to pro-life as governor of Massachusetts.

Those persistent suspicions were stoked again Wednesday when top aide Eric Fehnstrom told CNN that Mr. Romney could revamp his campaign after he wins the nomination.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes,” he said. “It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

His opponents pounced. Both Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum were captured in photos playing with Etch-A-Sketch toys, and the Democratic National Committee gleefully highlighted the story for reporters.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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