On the eve of the Florida primary, I asked a friend who he planned to vote for and why. Silence. I let the moment simmer for a bit and then smiled and asked again. “Well, I would have no problem with [Mitt] Romney as our nominee IF the choice is arrogant left-winger who has driven us into the ditch versus smart, safe, business type who won't take crap from the Chinese. So, I’m supporting Gingrich.”
Romney won Florida the next day by double digits. Exit polling underscored that electability was a key, if not the key factor in the choice voters made Tuesday evening. But at this point I have no clue what that means — particularly after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
We are four contests into this primary season and there has been more drama, twists and flameouts than in any political season in recent memory. And it’s all because the putative nominee, Mitt Romney, can’t close the deal with his base.
From the very beginning — and I’m talking since 2008 — Mitt has had a problem explaining himself to the very Republicans who stand between him and the nomination. Suspicions about his “authentic” conservative credentials have dogged him continuously, and as we have seen since the beginning of the 2012 contest, his problem hasn't changed and perhaps has gotten worse — and that's what's so alarming. Mitt never built a strong base with conservatives or even made them comfortable that he truly cares about their issues, so even strong Mitt supporters aren't strong like they were for Ronald Reagan, or even Jack Kemp.
In the week between South Carolina and Florida, Romney’s political team rolls out Romney 2.0 — a more strident, nastier version of the original. True, Newt laid a little wood to Mitt’s backside in South Carolina but Florida would be different: Mitt was going to fight hard and Newt would feel it to the tune of $16 million dollars in negative ads. All is fair in love and war. And politics loves war.
While the victory was sweet, the cost of the battle not only left scars but may have cost Mitt more than the fight was worth, as polling going into the primary and since showed Mitt starting to lose support among independent voters. That carefully crafted image of the smart, safe businessman had become undone, and not by the hand of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul, but by Mitt Romney himself.
The irony in witnessing the Jekyll and Hyde transformation is that Mitt is not a dragon slayer, nor has he surrounded himself with dragon slayers. He and his team like to play it safe, sit on a lead and not get into the party politics too much. So pushing Newt’s button was both bold and dangerous — especially if you don’t normally do "dangerous."
On election night Newt did not call Mitt to congratulate him. Poor form for sure, but I guess if I had just received a $16-million-dollar whipping I wouldn’t be inclined to call the person with the stick and congratulate them for beating the hell out of me. This fight will get a little nastier and will certainly last a little longer (Newt has vowed to take his campaign all the way to the National Convention).
Mitt has looked like the safe bet throughout this contest and yet it remains a mystery to many why he has not looked that way to voters. At some point, and now is just as good a time as any, Mitt has to define himself, his beliefs and his vision to a wary Republican party — and mean it. Many of the GOP’s activists and party leaders and even his staunchest supporters are pretty discouraged that Mitt has had many good breaks (remember Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain?) but hasn't, up to this week in Florida, made his own breaks. Now it appears folks don’t like the way he made it.
If nothing else, this week has shown voters that Mitt Romney does not plan to sit around and wait for Newt to self-destruct or for Santorum to become the next “anyone but Mitt” candidate. That’s smart, but I’m not sure if laying down carpet-bombs to get the nomination is, especially if you lose the broader appeal and support you’ll need to defeat President Obama in November.
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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