In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, released after the South Carolina primary, just over half of independents said they have an unfavorable view of Romney, a number that rose by more than 20 points since late November.
Meanwhile, the share of independents who have a positive impression of Romney dropped to 23 percent, from 45 percent, over that same eight-week period.
‘In a vise between the two’
Already, there are signs that Romney is trying to strike a more delicate balance between the exigencies of the primary race and the challenges that await him if he succeeds in getting the nomination.
In Florida, for instance, “Romney signaled a turn toward the general election when he endorsed the idea of military service as a pathway to immigration,” said Mark McKinnon, who was a media adviser to Bush in both of his successful presidential campaigns. “But he hasn’t coalesced conservatives, and independents have turned against him. So he’s in a vise between the two, which will make recalibration very painful.”
The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Romney is not the most agile of candidates, as evidenced by a string of gaffes that, most recently, included what he conceded was a misstatement: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Those kind of comments — and the attention that his opponents have drawn to his wealth and his now-closed Swiss bank account — may have aggravated the concerns of the 45 percent of independents who said, in a January poll by The Post and the Pew Research Center, that Romney does not understand the problems of average Americans. Only 34 percent said they believe he does.
And moments such as Donald Trump’s endorsement Thursday may come back to haunt a candidate who promises steady, sober leadership.
With his questioning of the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate, Trump has built an enthusiastic following among the “birther movement,” which contends falsely that the 44th president is constitutionally ineligible for the office.
But polls have shown that Trump’s endorsement is, on balance, a turn-off for voters — and it would also put Romney on the hook for whatever outrageous statements Trump makes between now and November.
Obama’s reelection campaign does not plan to make the adjustment to the general election campaign any easier for Romney.
At its headquarters in Chicago, Obama’s team is compiling a dossier of Romney statements made in the heat of the primary battle.
“I know he walked away with the hard drives in Massachusetts,” said Obama’s chief political strategist David Axelrod, referring to the fact that Romney’s gubernatorial staff took computer records with them when they left office. “But the video [from the primary campaign] is going to be hard to erase.”
About even in swing states
Romney aides declined to discuss any plans to retool their campaign for the general election, saying that talking about it amid a primary race would be presumptuous.
They note that, whatever the challenges ahead, Romney is already running just about even with Obama in the swing states — something that is true of no other GOP contender.
And some Republicans note that Romney has always seemed more comfortable when he is on a general election footing, training his fire on Obama and focusing on his own spectacularly successful record in business.
Indeed, his initial strategy for winning the nomination had been to all but ignore his GOP opponents and run as if he already had the nomination.
“Romney’s strength is as a general-election candidate,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican political consultant. “In some ways, he’ll be able to unleash the real Romney.”
“He’s a good candidate when he engages Obama,” Stutzman added. “He tried to get nominated that way, and it didn’t work.”
Stutzman and others argue that the sooner Romney can get to a two-man contest with the president, the better. But Romney himself professes not to be concerned by the fact that the primary race is likely to drag on at least until next month’s Super Tuesday contests.
“A competitive primary does not divide us,” Romney said in his Florida victory speech. “It prepares us.”
Polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.