Analysis: Chasing an incumbent in a crowded field
WASHINGTON (AP) — As Mitt Romney reflects on his showing on Super Tuesday, he might sneak a peek at clips of President Barack Obama's news conference performance hours earlier. It was an object lesson about the power of incumbency and about the challenge facing Romney while his own party foes still nip at his heels.
As hard as Romney tries, he has yet to be able to define the race against Obama on his own terms. Busy fending off Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich on his right, his critiques of Obama become part of the Republican chorus, diluted and subsumed.
By contrast, there was the president, wielding a powerful megaphone, able to steal the limelight even on a day when 10 states were deciding GOP nominating contests.
From behind the lectern in the White House Brady Briefing Room, Obama dismissed the Republican contenders for the "casualness" with which they discuss war, giving their calls for a more muscular policy against Iran the back of his hand.
"Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities," he said scornfully. "They're not commander in chief."
With that, at least for the moment, Obama defined the race on his terms.
What's more, the Republican contest has served to rally Democrats behind Obama while the public's view of the Republican field remains more negative than positive, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post.
Indeed, there's a reason incumbents tend to win re-election.
"They have the bully pulpit, they usually have the benefit of no primary challengers at the same time that the opposition party is chewing itself up," veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.
At the same time, as Ayres notes, a presidential contest with an incumbent seeking re-election tends to be a referendum on the preceding four years. For Obama, the country's modest economic recovery still makes him vulnerable even amid signs of improved consumer confidence. At 8.3 percent, unemployment in January was the highest it has been in an election year since the Great Depression. On top of that, gasoline prices are at record highs for this time of year.
The only two incumbents to lose in the past three decades — Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — were also vulnerable. But it still took exceptional, charismatic politicians — Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator," and Bill Clinton ("I feel your pain") — to beat them.
If Romney is on an eventual path to win the nomination, as his victories Tuesday suggest, his challenge is to rise to the level of a Reagan or a Clinton.
As his base jells behind him, Obama now has the luxury of appealing to independent voters. With a simple phone call last week to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student derided by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, he turned a Republican argument about contraception and religious liberty on its head. In so doing, he made a renewed plea for civil discourse, and by extension, to those voters who recoil from the rough partisanship of politics.
Obama is now also calibrating his relationship with congressional Republicans. After months of casting them as obstructionists, he now has won an extension of a payroll tax cut and his aides have spoken favorably of a Republican legislative package to assist small businesses. In the end, Obama advisers believe, the political benefit of any legislative accomplishment accrues to the president.
Romney, of course, doesn't have that perch of power. His business and government accomplishments are in the past, as a venture capitalist, Olympics savior or Massachusetts governor. The only places for Romney to demonstrate achievement now are in the Republican nominating contests, and those so far are a mixed bag.
On Tuesday, Romney won in Ohio, Vermont, Virginia, Idaho, Alaska and his home state of Massachusetts. Santorum won in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota, while Gingrich took his own state of Georgia.
Romney has shown weakness in the South. Before losing Tennessee and Georgia, he lost South Carolina to Gingrich in January. He then went on to win in Florida. But the South is the most important region in the Republican base of support.
"It's important that the Republican presidential nominee be popular in the geographical base of the party," said Ayres, who has vast experience in Southern and national political contests.
Still, Romney's tentative foothold in the South may be all he needs. If Romney gets the nomination, there is little doubt he would win most Southern states.
Yet as the contest proceeds with Santorum and Gingrich still in the hunt, Romney doesn't have Obama's opportunity to turn his attention to independent voters. The longer the nominating contest goes, the longer Obama can have that audience much to himself.
And Romney, who has said he "won't light his hair on fire" to stir up the Republican base, could finally enter the general election with two opposing tasks before him: stirring up conservatives who preferred his primary foes and making his case to the independents and centrists who ultimately could decide the election.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for The Associated Press.