Brutal nomination fight lays ahead for GOP

AP

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has repeatedly failed to win over the party’s conservative base and now faces a brutal and extended political battle with Rick Santorum, a fight that could weaken whichever candidate who wins the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November.

When the Republicans began their campaigns for the nomination months ago, Obama was seen as a vulnerable incumbent, weighed down by an economy that was struggling to recover from the deepest downturn the United States had suffered since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But since late last summer, as one Republican hopeful after another gained and then lost the support of the party’s conservative base, the economy also began showing signs of a sustained recovery. That in turn strengthened Obama’s standing and led Republicans to stray from the economic message into deeply divisive social issues like contraception.

That detour energized conservative Republicans behind Santorum’s ultraconservative message and again focused their distrust of Romney over his past moderate stands on key social issues such as abortion and gay rights. Throughout it all Romney also was heavily weighed down by having presided as governor of Massachusetts over a reform of the state’s health care system, an overhaul that subsequently served as the model for the plan Obama pushed through Congress during his first year in office.

To find favor with Republicans who revile the health care legislation, Romney now says he would work to repeal the Obama plan as have Santorum and third-running Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives who has now fallen far behind in the contest. He vows to stay in the race, a determination that denies Santorum his desire to finally be in a one-on-one race with Romney.

With the nominating race now ever more chaotic, Romney still holds an huge lead in delegates to the Republican national nominating convention in August in Tampa, Florida. But he is in danger of being unable to amass the 1,144 delegates needed to assure him of the nomination before the convention opens, and that could lead to a politically bloody battle in Tampa that would further weaken whichever candidate emerges as the standard-bearer against Obama.

After Romney turned in third-place finishes last Tuesday in primaries Alabama and Mississippi, Romney was forced further on the defensive. Santorum’s big wins in both Southern states damaged not only Romney but also undid Gingrich’s plans to stage a campaign rebirth with wins in the Deep South.

Now with no primary is too minor, Santorum has stormed into Puerto Rico ahead of the Sunday vote there, and Romney put nearly $1 million into television advertising in Illinois, which will be the next big-state showdown on Tuesday.

“If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Gov. Romney is not going to be the nominee,” said Santorum, eager to build on his unexpected victories in Alabama and Mississippi.

But Santorum may have hurt his chances in predominantly Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico when he told a newspaper interviewer from the Caribbean island that English would have to be the “main language” if the U.S. territory were to become a state.

Puerto Rico is set to hold a referendum on statehood in November. Whether to become the 51st state is the critical issue for this U.S. territory, which does not have full voting rights in Congress.

The island’s Republican governor, Luis Fortuno, backs statehood and supports Romney, who dismissed Santorum as a “lightweight” on the economy. That signaled his attempt to redirect the Republican debate back to the central message against Obama’s re-election.

In the midst of the Republican efforts, Vice President Joe Biden made his first major foray into the 2012 campaign on Thursday in politically crucial Ohio, defending Obama’s bailout of the auto industry in a speech to an auto workers union.

Biden called out Romney and the other Republican presidential hopefuls by name for their failure to support the bailout of the U.S. automobile industry.

The vice president cast Obama as an advocate for the middle class, while labeling Romney, Gingrich and Santorum as protectors of the privileged.

“If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class,” Biden told a crowd gathered at a United Auto Workers hall in Toledo.

Biden directed much of his fire at Romney, criticizing him for saying he would have let the auto industry go bankrupt and predicting the bailout would turn the car companies into the “living dead.”

“The president didn’t flinch,” Biden said. “This is a man with steel in his spine.”

Thursday’s speech marked the first of four general election events Biden will hold in the coming weeks aimed at drawing a sharper contrast between Obama and his Republican rivals, namely Romney.

Biden is also expected to offer a robust critique of Romney’s opposition to the policy, which the White House says saved 1.4 million U.S. jobs.

Romney on Wednesday also rebutted suggestions that he can’t appeal to core conservatives, after a wave of evangelical Christian voters flocked behind Santorum’s candidacy in Alabama and Mississippi.

“You don’t win a million more votes than anyone else in this race by just appealing to high-income Americans,” the multimillionaire told Fox News. “Some who are very conservative may not be in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee, when I face Barack Obama.”

And Romney, while finishing third in those states, actually added several delegates to advantage because of his wins on the same night in caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa. Romney’s aides remind that he has more than half the delegates picked so far.

The former Massachusetts governor also travels to Puerto Rico on Friday, after two days of fundraising in New York.

But in a reflection of the importance of next week’s Illinois primary, aides announced Romney would make a previously unscheduled campaign stop in the Chicago area en route to Puerto Rico _ where residents cannot even vote in the fall election.

All in all, the Republican race has become the most turbulent in a generation.