WASHINGTON – For Mitt Romney, the drawn-out Republican primary contest that is coming to a close may turn out to be the easy part.
His wins Tuesday in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., primaries solidified his front-runner status in the nomination contest, even if they didn’t result in his Republican adversaries dropping out of the race.
Now the former Massachusetts governor shifts to a more costly and contentious campaign against President Obama, which he starts at a disadvantage with such voting blocs as women, Hispanic Americans and independents.
Romney, who already is employing anti-Obama messages at campaign stops, is beginning a targeted appeal to swing voters in competitive states.
Winning them over won’t be an easy task, because he spent much of the last year courting the Republican Party base by emphasizing his opposition to abortion rights, federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and a path to legalization for some illegal immigrants.
He’s very aware of the challenges he now has with female voters and Hispanics, said Dan Schnur, who advised Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain during his 2000 presidential campaign and now runs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.
I don’t know what Mitt Romney thought about illegal immigration or Planned Parenthood before last summer, but he spent a great deal of time talking about those issues the last several months, and while it’s helped him in the primary, he seems to recognize that he’s in a hole that he needs to find a way to get out of, Schnur said.
Romney’s adjustments will be more difficult with Obama and the Democratic National Committee moving to define him negatively in the eyes of voters. The president criticized Romney by name Tuesday for praising as marvelous the House-passed budget that Obama described as overhauling Medicare and cutting domestic programs while lowering taxes for high earners.
Romney used his victory speech in Milwaukee on Tuesday night to fire back.
President Obama thinks he’s doing a good job. I’m not kidding; he actually thinks he’s doing a great job, Romney said.
Women like Obama
Tony Fabrizio, a Republican polling specialist who advised Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he left the primary, said Romney will emerge from the primary better known and less liked than when he entered.
He starts the process at a disadvantage, because he came into this with having not a lot of I.D., but what he had was net-positive, and he will probably come out of it with more I.D. but it’s net-negative, said Fabrizio of Alexandria, Va.-based Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates. He has ground to make up.
A USA Today/Gallup survey conducted March 20-26 among registered voters in 12 politically competitive states showed Obama leading Romney 51 percent to 42 percent – a turnaround from a month ago, when Romney led the president 48 percent to 46 percent.
The shift was driven mainly by women, who preferred Obama by an 18-percentage-point margin. That trend was most evident among those under the age of 50, who were twice as likely to back Obama – more than 60 percent of them did – than Romney, who drew support from just 30 percent.
The shortfall with women is worse for Romney than the 13-point deficit McCain suffered in 2008, when Obama beat him in part by drawing 56 percent of female voters to his Republican rival’s 43 percent.
During the primary, Romney – who has described his record as severely conservative – has touted his opposition to abortion rights, backed legislation to allow some employers to deny health insurance coverage for contraception, and said he would stop funding Planned Parenthood, a women’s health organization that provides cancer screenings, routine examinations, and abortion services.
Romney’s problem with Hispanic voters is even more pronounced after he rejected proposals to allow illegal immigrants a path to legalization, including a bill known as the DREAM Act to let undocumented residents brought to the country as babies or young children obtain citizenship if they attend college or join the military.
A poll released last month by Fox News Latino found Romney’s support among likely Latino voters at 14 percent. Obama had the backing of 70 percent of respondents in that poll.
And the most recent Gallup poll conducted March 25-26 found Romney trailing the president among independent voters, 40 percent to Obama’s 48 percent.
Shift has begun
Obviously you have to close the gender gap some, and we definitely need an active campaign in the Hispanic community, said Charlie Black, a Republican campaign strategist who is advising Romney.
Romney also needs to spend time, he added, cleaning up a little bit of any negative perceptions that were created in the primary – and of course, you have to go back and check and make sure your base will rally around you.
Romney will spend the next several months trying to overcome those hurdles, his advisers say.
The campaign shift is already evident in Romney’s campaign stump speech and events, both in style and substance. He’s unveiled a new message that rarely mentions or alludes to his primary rivals – former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, or Texas Rep. Ron Paul – instead calling out Obama by name and criticizing his economic policies.
President Obama prolonged the recession and slowed the recovery, Romney said March 30 in Appleton, Wis., adding, President Obama’s economic strategy is a bust.
He’s also reaching out to groups he has alienated during the primary season, including dispatching his wife, Ann, to campaign stops and media interviews to soften his image and make an explicit pitch to women.
In Wisconsin this week, Romney made a point of telling voters in Middleton that his party had no intention of banning contraceptives and isn’t anti-immigrant.
Romney’s advisers say he can appeal to women and Hispanics with an economic message that argues that Obama has harmed the economy and Romney knows how to fix it.
That may prove a more difficult case to make if the economy continues to improve.
The biggest challenge for Romney, now that he’s talking to swing voters rather than the Republican Party faithful, is convincing them that some economic recovery isn’t enough economic recovery, Schnur said.