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For Romney, Challenges Remain

11:15 PM, Jan 31, 2012 • By FRED BARNES
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Mitt Romney’s challenges aren’t over yet. Sorry to say that after his impressive defeat of Newt Gingrich in the Florida presidential primary. He’s improved as a candidate, but he needs to get better before facing President Obama (assuming he captures the GOP nomination).

Mitt Romney

Romney’s first task is to eliminate Gingrich, who responded strangely to his double-digit defeat by ticking off a list of five executive orders he intends to issue on his first day as president. Gingrich said he’s now waging “a people’s campaign” against the establishment, Wall Street, and Romney.

After losing to Gingrich in South Carolina on January 21, Romney toughened his campaign, proved he can be aggressive in debate when he wants to, and rattled Gingrich. He overpowered Gingrich in two televised debates in Florida.

But Gingrich isn’t finished yet. The schedule of primaries and caucuses over the next month favors him – in conservative states like Arizona, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee. And Romney may not be able to outspend Gingrich 5-to-1 as he did in Florida.

As strong as Romney’s performance was in Florida, he has yet to hit the right note with movement conservatives. He simply doesn’t have the right vocabulary or tone to appeal to them.  He sounds less conservative than he actually is. Romney needs to excite conservatives, since they are the ground troops of successful Republican presidential campaigns.

The exit poll in Florida found that 60 percent of voters who felt Romney’s positions are “not conservative enough” voted for Gingrich. Only 10 percent went for Romney. And “very conservative voters” preferred Gingrich to Romney, 43 percent to 30 percent.

Those are numbers that Romney must come to grips with. Conservatives shouldn’t be that difficult to woo, especially if Romney has succeeded in driving Gingrich out of the race – and Rick Santorum too. Romney has never been a movement conservative, but he and the movement folks have a mutual interest in beating Obama.

Romney also has an unsolved issue problem: He needs a big issue or vision to give purpose and a framework to his campaign.  As things stand, his overriding issue is himself. He’ll revive the economy. Why? Because he says he will. That won’t cut against Obama.

“My vision for free enterprise is to return entrepreneurship to the genius and creativity of the American people,” Romney said in his victory speech. Fine, but how will he do that? He didn’t say.  

Another one of Romney’s lines is that the campaign is “about saving the soul of America.” That sounds more like something Obama would say. It’s essentially meaningless, like “hope and change.”

Romney insisted the brutal primary campaign, with Romney and Gingrich trading attacks on each other’s character and motives, won’t leave Republicans divided. “A competitive primary does not divide us,” he said. “It prepares us. When Republicans gather in August at their convention, “ours will be a united party with a winning ticket for America.” He didn’t say so, but it’s up to Romney to do the uniting.

Gingrich isn’t falling in line. His speech – a loser talking as if he’d just won the presidency – was bizarre. His remarks were pure Gingrichese. He promised to bring “fundamental basic change in Washington even if the establishment doesn’t like it.”

Gingrich’s supporters carried signs saying “46 states to go.” That expressed the determination of Gingrich to continue his bid for the presidency. “We are going to contest every place,” he said.

After complaining for most of the past week about Romney’s money, TV ads, and tactics, Gingrich was upbeat and optimistic in his appearance after Romney was declared the winner in Florida. All the better for him.  In politics, as in life, nobody likes a whiner.

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