Palin’s Specter Haunts Romney Campaign: Margaret Carlson

March 14 (Bloomberg) -- For a while there, it looked as if Republicans might be getting somewhere with women.

John McCain lost the female vote -- big time, as Dick Cheney would say -- in 2008. But in 2010 almost as many women voted for Republicans as did for Democrats, giving the party control of the House. And compared with his two Republican rivals -- the much-married Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, a character out of the 1950s with antediluvian anti-birth-control views -- Mitt Romney is pretty easy on the female voter’s eyes.

Against President Barack Obama, Romney’s appeal fades away. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Obama still has a six-point lead over Romney among women. A Pew survey has the gender gap worse than it was in 2008, when Obama won 56 percent of women: He’s now drawing 59 percent. Even with the polls tightening and higher gas prices rankling both sexes, Obama maintains his lead with the fairer one.

Obama could sit back and let Republicans drive away women all by themselves. He doesn’t need much more than the macho anti-woman cultural efforts at the federal (see the Blunt amendment) and state level (see Virginia’s vaginal probe bill). Thanks to the never-ending primaries, Romney, with proud “You might be a redneck if” comedian Jeff Foxworthy at his side, has to keep wooing the grits-loving varmint hunters in his base.

His Feminist Side

So Romney dare not show his feminist side, if he has one. Instead he’s quietly using Ann Romney more frequently to suggest he’s more than a head of hair and a pair of dad jeans who doesn’t mind firing people.

Obama’s not resting. At some point the gender gap can grow so wide that the president can lose every Joe the Plumber out there and still win. To that end, March is the month of the woman for the Obama campaign -- with mailings to a million of them in battleground states, along with hundreds of special events, house parties and phone banks, all culminating in a yet-to-be-revealed extravaganza at the end of the month.

What’s Romney to do? Before deciding, he should be forced to watch the movie “Game Change,” on HBO this month, just as Al Gore was supposedly assigned to watch that “Saturday Night Live” skit in 2000 to show him what not to do in his debate with George W. Bush. “Game Change” is not a documentary, of course, although Wolf Blitzer plays himself, and not everything in it actually happened. Then again, none of its basic facts have been challenged by anyone except Sarah Palin, whose camp handed out fliers (to me, they failed to make the case) at the movie’s Washington premiere.

At any rate, it’s not the facts that are so disturbing -- it’s the movie’s premise. It’s hard to believe that McCain and the country’s leading political strategists would be so cavalier as to select a running mate so manifestly unqualified as Palin.

Romney would never do such a thing, you say? But the ease with which the calculation was made to choose Palin -- and stick with her -- shows how our politics have become purely competitive. You do what you have to do.

The film shows politics, and politicians, at their most craven. McCain is suffering from a crippling deficit with women, and the cry goes out to find one. Across the screen flash images of female officials with solid records, such as Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. They are dismissed as too dull. With little thought and only five days to vet her, McCain’s wise men choose the more exciting, pro-life, pro-gun (she hunts moose!), pro-Iraq (she has a son serving), and pro-God governor of Alaska.

Troubling Ignorance

In short, Palin is to be Ginger to McCain’s Fred Astaire. But it quickly becomes obvious, in the movie at least, that she doesn’t do anything better than he does -- though, granted, she does do it in high heels.

McCain and Co. are shaken by Palin’s ignorance. She doesn’t know the difference between North and South Korea, or between the queen of England and the prime minister. She doesn’t seem to understand what the Fed does, or the most basic facts about Russia. She is an emotional roller coaster.

None of it matters. As long she keeps attracting adoring crowds, McCain’s advisers are determined to cover up her incompetence and slog on. If it hadn’t been for the economic collapse, she could have been the proverbial “heartbeat away” from the presidency -- in this case, the heart of a 72-year-old man who has lived a war hero’s life.

So much for the horror movie. Back in the real world, only one woman is in the top five choices for the vice presidential nomination, according to Intrade: Susana Martinez, who was elected governor of New Mexico -- thanks in part to a Palin endorsement -- in 2010. She could have been bred in a lab alongside Palin: female, young, charismatic, skeptical on global warming and collective bargaining, knows how to shoot a gun.

What’s more, she’s Hispanic and carried 40 percent of that vote while Republicans nationally are lagging with that group by 5-to-1. That doesn’t mean she’s pro-Hispanic. She’s against illegal immigrants having driver’s licenses and cool to the Dream Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who join the military or graduate from college.

All of this may make her sound great to Romney, who has moved markedly right on immigration. But if he finds himself contemplating another female first-term governor as a running mate, I suggest he make some time to sit down and watch “Game Change.” I’ll spring for the popcorn.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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