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Space for conservative alternative to Mitt Romney shrinks

at 06:30 AM ET, 02/01/2012

Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have argued for weeks over who is the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and both have said that they can win if the right wing of the GOP coalesces behind one candidate.

Tuesday’s result in Florida casts doubt on that theory.

For one thing, Romney’s share of the vote, 46 percent, was more than the total of Gingrich (32 percent) and Santorum (13 percent) combined, according to results available late Tuesday night. And the rest of the vote went to a decidedly non-traditional Republican, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

And let’s not forget: This was the first state in the 2012 GOP presidential race where only registered Republicans were allowed to vote.

Considering that, Romney came out of Tuesday’s contest looking much more the part of conservative consensus candidate, even if the base isn’t completely sold on him yet.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, above, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum are battling for the right to be the anti-Mitt Romney conservative choice, but the results of Tuesday’s Florida primary cast doubt on whether there’s room. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Exit polls showed Romney winning among tea party supporters and born-again evangelical Christians — two groups that have eluded him in previous contests — and running way in front of his opponents among those who describe themselves as “somewhat conservative.”

Now, he still lost “very conservative” voters by about 10 points to Gingrich, but he took nearly one in three of those voters which, if he can replicate in future states, should be more than good enough to become the nominee.

“Somewhat conservative” and “moderate or liberal” voters generally comprise more of the vote than “very conservative” voters, and that was the case in Florida, with the first two combining for two-thirds of the vote despite the closed (i.e. no independents) primary. Romney took well more than half of those votes.

Perhaps even more importantly, Romney returned to the mantle of most electable candidate, with more than half of voters saying he was the most likely to beat President Obama. He took three-fourths of their votes.

What many people forget is that even very conservative voters are looking for electability. The reason Gingrich was able to win in South Carolina was because Romney lost the electability argument, and the most conservative voters felt safe voting en masse for Gingrich because of it.

Romney isn’t totally out of the woods yet when it comes to the base, and things in this presidential race can turn on a dime, but if Romney can continue to win moderate and moderately conservative Republicans by large margins and do decently among the most conservative voters, he’s going to be just fine.

Santorum to target Romney: Despite the data described above, Santorum made his case Tuesday to become the new anti-Romney candidate, saying that he will give a speech Wednesday targeting the former Massachusetts governor’s record, particularly on his health care bill.

“Tomorrow we’re going to give a speech on Romneycare and Obamacare,” Santorum said in remarks to supporters in Nevada on Tuesday night.

Santorum said it was his turn to be the conservative Romney alternative.

“I think people are realizing that it’s time to coalesce,” he said in an interview with CNN.

Democrats win Oregon special election: Former state senator Suzanne Bonamici (D) won the special election for former congressman David Wu’s (D-Ore.) seat Tuesday by double digits.

Bonamici led Republican businessman Rob Cornilles 54 percent to 39 percent in results available late Tuesday.

National Democrats and Democratic-leaning super PACs spent $1.8 million to ensure the race wasn’t close, and it worked.

Wu resigned in July amidst allegations of an inappropriate sexual encounter with a young woman.

Fixbits:

Romney will get Secret Service protection, according to ABC News.

Gingrich reiterated Tuesday night that he is in the race for the long haul.

Mark Cenedella, the founder of TheLadders.com, has opted against challenging Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) as a Republican. Cenedella recently came under fire for some racy content on his personal blog.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) raised just $656,000 in the fourth quarter, about half of what Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) raised for their matchup this year.

In the Arizona Senate race, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) raised $607,000 — slightly more than first-time candidate and former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona (D). Both face primaries.

Must-reads:

Mitt Romney’s Florida sweep — and how it changes the presidential race “ — Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

Super PACs helping Republican candidates close in on Obama” — Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam, Washington Post

 
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