In Maryland and D.C., Mitt Romney finds his kind of voters

April 3, 2012

These were the people Mitt Romney was waiting for.

In the District, Maryland and Wisconsin on Tuesday, Romney was swept to a triple victory by voters who saw the Republican presidential primary race as more like a hiring process than a battle in a cultural war.

The people who went to the polls in these jurisdictions included a smaller fraction of evangelical voters than in previous primary states. Compared with the deep-red Southern states that rejected Romney, Tuesday’s voters also had a wider range of political beliefs: In Wisconsin, four out of 10 voters in the Republican primary weren’t even Republicans.

These voters didn’t want to send a message. They wanted a man for a job: beating President Obama in November.

And many said Romney’s temperament and résumé make him the best-qualified applicant.

“He’s got qualifications. He’s got money, which helps. He’s got business experience, which is what this country needs,” said James Jacobsen, 79, of Bethesda. Jacobsen had first considered former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) but decided that he couldn’t win in November.

Like many Romney supporters, he seemed to feel less passionately about the former Massachusetts governor than about the man he wanted Romney to beat.

“I don’t want Obama,” Jacobsen said emphatically.

In the states that were the day’s big prizes — Maryland and Wisconsin — fewer than four in 10 voters called themselves “born again,” below the year’s average of 51 percent. About three in 10 identified themselves as “very conservative,” far less than the share in Southern states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, which Romney lost.

And Maryland, especially, teemed with a kind of voter that has been friendly to Romney all year: people making more than $100,000 per year. They made up nearly half of all GOP voters in the Free State.

Among this crowd, Romney seemed to win on the strength of his résumé: He grabbed a huge share of the voters who said their biggest concern was a candidate with “the right experience” or one who could defeat Obama.

In Wisconsin, retired firefighter Jim Zeirke, 58, said he had debated between Romney and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.). But he was won over by the endorsement of a conservative icon and home-state politician, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

“I’m voting for him because of his executive experience. The current president, he’s never run anything before,” Zeirke said. “You look at Mitt, he ran businesses, he ran the Olympics, he can get in there and be an executive and clean up the mess there.”

Even before the polls closed, Romney sought to frame Tuesday’s contests as a chance to speed up the inevitable: his nomination. He said his rivals — now far behind him in the race for 1,144 GOP delegates — were only making it harder for him to beat Obama in November.

“I want to have our nominee start raising money, start organizing a national campaign, and focus on President Obama and his agenda,” Romney said Tuesday afternoon on conservative talk-radio host Sean Hannity’s program. “I think we’ve had, as of tonight, we will have had almost 35 or more state or territorial contests for the nomination. Maybe it’s time to get going.”

Not everybody was convinced.

In Bethesda, Phillip and Eloise Buford said the contest should be about more than just choosing Obama’s opponent — the Republican Party should be trying to “restore the country” to conservative values.

That led them both to Santorum.

“I think he’s a true American, he has high moral values, and I think he’ll do anything to get us back the way it was,” Eloise Buford said.

“In the words of Sarah Palin, when an issue comes up and you instinctively turn right, you are what I [gravitate] toward,” Phillip Buford said. “That’s Santorum. Romney tends to have to think about it.”

Other voters were drawn to Gingrich, a faded candidate who has bounced from defeat to defeat in recent weeks.

“At least you know who you’re dealing with. I give him credit for that,” said Linda Hamilton-Gilbert, 62, voting at Saint Benedict the Moor Catholic Church in the Kingman Park neighborhood of Northeast Washington. She was doubly lonely Tuesday: She was just one of 80 Republicans in her heavily Democratic precinct and was supporting a candidate who would get just a fraction of the day’s votes.

“I don’t like these plastic politicians. I’d rather they be honest with me,” Hamilton-Gilbert said.

At Murch Elementary in Northwest Washington, Adrian Salsgiver saw the problem the same way Romney does: The GOP’s job is to pick someone who can beat Obama.

But Salsgiver, 53, differed with Romney on the solution.

Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), he said, is “the only one who can beat Obama. Romney can’t.”

He explained: “Obama is too popular. Too good-looking. . . . Romney just seems so insincere.”

But many more voters on Tuesday saw the contest the way Romney sees it: He’s the guy who can beat the president. In fact, they lauded him for the very things that seemed like flaws in other, redder states. He could be a moderate? What’s wrong with that?

“He’s not too far to the right,” said Austin King, 55, volunteering as an election judge at the polling station at Montgomery’s Walt Whitman High School. “Not too far to the left.”

That’s a good thing, King said.

Staff reporters Philip Rucker, Jimm Phillips, Rachel Karas, Caitlin Gibson, Tim Craig, Jeremy Borden and Michael DeBonis contributed to this report. Rucker reported from Waukesha, Wis.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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