Mitt Romney most likely will be the Republican presidential nominee if he sticks to his pledge of reviving the economy, because conservatives probably won’t coalesce around rival Rick Santorum, two of the party’s veteran politicians predicted.
Former New Hampshire Senator John Sununu and onetime Representative Tom Davis of Virginia also urged Republicans in Congress to agree to a 10-month extension of the payroll-tax cut and avoid a repeat of political damage they sustained last year.
“They’ll get clobbered again if they’re not careful,” Sununu said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
Former Massachusetts Governor Romney’s losses on Feb. 7 to Santorum in the party caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and the nonbinding primary in Missouri won’t hurt his front-runner status because his organization can overpower former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum or former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the two ex-lawmakers said.
“It’s still hard for me to see at the end of the day how anybody but Romney gets the nomination,” said Davis, who once headed the House Republican campaign effort. “Romney’s strong on the ground, and that’s been his saving grace.”
Even though social conservatives propelled Santorum to victory in this week’s contests, the party’s right wing probably won’t unify against Romney, Sununu said.
“They haven’t been able to do it so far,” Sununu, 47, said. “They didn’t coalesce with Newt” after his South Carolina victory on Jan. 21, and “‘they don’t seem to be coalescing with Santorum now,” he said.
“They obviously haven’t coalesced around Ron Paul,” the Texas representative who’s also in the race, Sununu said.
Still, Romney, 64, must “focus on the economic message and his experience; those are his greatest strengths,” Sununu said. “He needs to do that” because “broadly speaking, Republicans, Democrats, independents, people are focused on the economy.”
Davis, 63, said Romney shouldn’t be distracted from the economic issues to try to appeal more to social conservatives.
“You have to be yourself in this game,” the former Virginia lawmaker said. “When you try to be somebody else it hurts you,” he said. Romney was “hurt” when “he’s gone off script a little bit” and “become somebody different.”
‘Edible to All’
While Romney will “never be flavor of the month” with Republicans, “he’s edible to all elements of the party at this point,” Davis said.
To position himself for the general election campaign against President Barack Obama, Romney shouldn’t “go too far” in trying to embrace socially conservative voters, Davis said.
“He’s not going to have the passion behind him at this stage,” Davis said. Yet “once he’s nominated” and running “head-to-head with Barack Obama the passion will follow.”
The next two contests, Feb. 28 primaries in Michigan and Arizona, are opportunities for Gingrich and Santorum to try to overtake Romney.
To narrow the Republican race to a two-candidate contest, “someone either has to beat Romney in one of those two states or the same candidate needs to run pretty a pretty close second,” Sununu said.
Davis said Santorum “has a one-up on Newt with conservatives” in Michigan, though “his economics are more so-so.”
Romney’s financial advantage over Santorum and Gingrich won’t matter as much in Michigan and Arizona as it will on March 6, when 11 states hold primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday, Sununu said. On Feb. 28, “all the press coverage will be focused on those two races,” he said.
Romney should have won Colorado, Sununu said, faulting the candidate’s advisers for not “driving their organization” in the state “hard enough.”
A victory there “would have made for a very different message, tone and momentum going into Feb. 28,” Sununu said.
On the payroll tax cut, both former lawmakers urged Republicans and Congress to dispose of the issue, which Democrats have used to paint their party as obstructionist.
Sununu said House Republicans risk being “hung out again” if they don’t make a deal with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
House Republicans were blamed for legislative brinksmanship that threatened the expiration of a payroll-tax cut in December. The House was forced to accept a two-month extension after the leaders couldn’t agree on how to finance a full-year’s extension of the tax cut and long-term unemployment benefits.
For House Republicans, “the pain is mandatory, the suffering is optional,” Davis said. “They’ve just got to get it behind them.”