February 20, 2012

Mitt Romney’s staggering failure to solidify his electoral base has led most members of the Calbuzz California Consultanate, in six short weeks, to reverse their nearly unanimous prediction that the Latter Day Shapeshifter would soon wrap up the GOP presidential nomination.

To their surprise – and our delight – many on the Calbuzz Advisory Board of Leading Authorities on Practically Everything now say the June 5 California Republican primary, with its 172 delegates, may actually matter.

With Rick Santorum poised to hand Romney an embarrassing thumping in Michigan (one of his “home” states) next Tuesday, and with the frothy former senator leading Romney by six or seven percentage points nationally, it’s looking increasingly likely that no one can wrap up the nomination without California. Especially with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul continuing to grab their pesky shares of the vote.

“Romney is getting weaker as the process goes along and there is no incentive for Gingrich, Santorum or Paul to fold at this stage. So despite the cost, California will be a contest,” said one Republican member of our panel.

A Democratic panelist likened Romney’s dilemma to a challenge Purina Dog Chow might face: “Romney has an old advertising problem. Despite great packaging, clever ads and a super enriched formula, dogs don’t like it.”

The Schadenfreude some of our panelists are experiencing is almost palpable. Said one Democrat: “How Santorum, with one staffer somewhere in an office, is giving Romney such a fight in places like Michigan is just too much fun to watch.”

But another Democrat warned fellow partisans against getting what they’re hoping for. If the GOP race is still a battle for delegates in June, this panelist cautioned, “Democratic candidates for the Legislature and Congress better watch out for the undoubtedly huge increase in GOP turnout in the open primary. It could make a strategy of coming in second in June, even in strong Democratic districts, much more difficult if there is a Republican in their race.”

Holy war in Golden State: Good point (Take note Howard Berman). But not one that dissuades Calbuzz from hoping against hope that the Republicans have to come campaign in California, with their hard-edged stands against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, holy wars against gay marriage, choice and contraception and their full throated calls for off-shore oil drilling. If their stands are good enough for South Carolina and Michigan, we’d like to hear them here in the Golden State.

Not all Republicans, however, are thrilled with the prospect. Said one of our GOP panelists: “The last thing the Republicans need is three or four white guys slugging it out in front of the most diverse audience in the nation.”

Ironically, Romney’s problem right now in Michigan isn’t with voters angry that he once famously argued in a New York Times op-ed that: “If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” That would be why he’d lose Michigan in a general election against President Obama. Instead his problem is with Tea Partiers and other knuckle-draggers on the right who think he’s back-tracking on that stand and is too wish-washy on everything else.

So he and the Super PACs supporting him are bashing Santorum from the right as the “ultimate Washington insider” who voted to raise the debt ceiling and for wasteful spending. Who knows where he stands? This guy couldn’t find himself with a divining rod in both hands. Which, despite all his fancy-pants campaign operation, is becoming increasingly clear to Republican voters.

Still, with enough carpeting bombing on TV, Romney could squash Santorum in the coming week. That might put the prospects for California mattering off again. But for now, it’s looking good for a race to the wire.

Here’s more of what our Consultanate panelists had to say.

Republicans first, since it’s their race

– It’s likely that California could matter this year; the primary will continue to take twists and turns and may not be over by June.

– California may well matter again in presidential politics. It’s still too early to know but my best guess is that it will be important but somewhat anti-climactic. It will greatly help push the leading candidate — I’m still thinking it’s Romney — towards the required number of delegates necessary to be nominated. But it will be surprising if it ends up being one of the truly decisive contests of the race. The real key to the GOP battle is for Romney to finally develop a compelling message and set of issues to motivate and unite Republican voters. Until he does that, it looks like a convoluted contest to the dreary end.

– The odds are still against the California Republican Primary being meaningful, but if Santorum is able to upset Romney in his home state of Michigan, those odds are going to improve a bit. It’s hard to imagine anyone else getting the nomination, given Romney’s edge in money and organization, but the longer he fails to land a knock-out blow, the greater the doubts he ever will.

– California will drive up Romney’s margin/mandate. The primary is a marathon, not a sprint, and Romney has taken each “flavor of the month” candidate’s best shot and beaten them soundly. Santorum is the next hurdle on the road to Tampa and then the White House.

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