A single number in the new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released this morning epitomizes the challenge before former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney when it comes to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Asked which of the Republican candidates had the best chance of beating President Obama next November, 42 percent chose Perry while 26 percent named Romney. No other candidate won double-digit support.
Couple those numbers with the fact that three-quarters of Republicans in that same poll say they prefer a candidate who can beat Obama to one that agrees with them on every issue and you begin to see the shape of Romney’s potential problem.
Romney is never going to be the “heart” candidate of the Republican field. He is never going to be the person that the GOP base will walk over hot coals for in the way that a Perry or perhaps even a Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) or former Alaska governor Sarah Palin might be.
To win the nomination then, Romney has to win the “head” fight; he must emerge as the candidate that Republicans, who badly want to beat Obama, believe is best equipped to do just that.
That reality is why Romney has gone so hard at Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” comments about Social Security in last week’s California debate, using by far his harshest language in the race to date to condemn the remarks.
“If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party,” Romney told Sean Hannity during a radio interview late last week. (So much for subtlety!)
The CNN polling shows that the attack isn’t working — yet. The poll was in the field in the immediate aftermath of the debate in California where Social Security was a point of contention but not the sole focus of the conversation.
Romney and his campaign team are likely to continue going hard at the issue in tonight’s debate and beyond, trying to raise doubts in voters’ minds about Perry’s strength in a general election. It’s their best shot of slowing or stopping the considerable momentum that Perry has built over the past month.
The question is whether Perry moderates his stance on Social Security — either tonight or some time in the near future — or whether he decides to stick with what he’s said in the past under the belief that it won’t hurt him badly with voters.
Put simply: If in a month’s time Perry’s lead on the electability question remains roughly what it is today, Romney could be in serious trouble.
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