How much damage has Mitt Romney suffered while grinding along his ugly path toward the GOP nomination? No less an authority than former First Lady Barbara Bush, who has plenty of experience with Republican rough-and-tumble, pronounced this "the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life," and her assessment was greeted by a friendly audience in Texas with a storm of applause. There is widespread fear among Establishment Republicans--and widespread hope among Democrats--that Romney is limping toward the Tampa convention severely weakened by debates over contraception, immigration and religion--issues far from the radar screen of voters overwhelmingly focused on the economy.
Romney has doggedly stuck to his economic message at his rallies and town halls, repeating blistering broadsides against Barack Obama's record, vision and abilities. But even before Romney won 6 of 10 Super Tuesday contests, the story line of the campaign had shifted from Obama's record to Romney's flaws. Why was it still so hard for him to wrap up the nomination? Why did he keep making so many flubs on the campaign trail? Would he need to shake up his campaign? How much longer could the campaign continue at this pace without Romney's sinking his own fortune into the campaign treasury?
The basic physics of the campaign have been immutable since the first of the seemingly endless series of more than 20 debates: When the conversation was about Romney, he struggled. When it focused on the President, he soared. "Right now you have four prosecutors standing in the courtroom arguing with each other in front of the jury," explains Charlie Black, a veteran GOP campaign strategist who worked with John McCain in 2008 and is now an informal adviser to Romney. "Meanwhile, the defense counsel is speaking directly to the jury."
Polls show the dings and dents left by Republican infighting. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked people to describe their reactions to the long primary season. Words like unenthusiastic, discouraged, lesser of two evils, painful, disappointed, poor choices, concerned, underwhelmed and depressed jumped to Republicans' minds. Among all American adults, a mere 12% said the process had given them a more favorable view of the GOP, while 40% said their opinion of the party had dimmed. Even among GOP primary voters, the split was 23% to 16% against their own brand.
For Romney in particular, the process has taken a toll. His strategists once bragged about his relatively high favorability ratings. In recent months, those numbers have plunged. The challenges from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, stoked by the still burning anger of the Tea Party movement, pushed Romney further and further to the right. Was he sincere in taking some of his more extreme positions--that Arizona's approach to illegal immigration should be "a model" for the country, for example? Or was he pandering? Neither alternative was very appealing to the narrow but crucial band of swing voters. Romney is now rated unfavorably by 39% of the country, while 28% see him favorably. Eleven points underwater is a very soggy place to begin a general election. Among independents, the numbers are even worse: 22% favorable, 38% unfavorable. According to some surveys, Latino voters are arrayed 5 to 1 against Romney, which is a recipe for general-election disaster.