GOP voters have little choice in race

Freedom New Mexico

Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination suffered its first real setback, a resounding loss to Newt Gingrich in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.

The former House speaker’s first victory is the latest manifestation of the trepidation GOP conservatives and Tea Party activists have for the former Massachusetts governor. Still, Republican voters in South Carolina were not flocking to Gingrich; they were running from Romney, who carried a double-digit lead a week ago and wound up losing by more than 12 points.

Much as the Romney campaign may try to spin the loss as a one-off, Gingrich has the wind at his back for now. But both candidates have much work to do if they intend to inspire and capture the enthusiasm of a volatile and scorned GOP voting base. Voters appear not to be thrilled about either of the choices.

Attacks by Gingrich worked, especially as Romney stumbled in debates when questions were raised about releasing his tax returns. (Romney said Sunday that he would release his 2010 return this week.) The Gingrich campaign has found a compelling weapon, painting Romney as an unethical capitalist, a moderate, who’s too elite and out of touch with ordinary Americans. Republicans in Florida, whose voters will be counted Jan. 31, can expect to see and hear more of the same.

Although effective, Gingrich’s attacks also raised questions about his own credibility as he took aim not only at Romney but also at capitalism, discrediting his own supposed free-market principles. Such tactics may help explain why Gingrich is so disliked by so many Americans.

In a recent Fox News poll, Gingrich was viewed favorably by 27 percent of respondents while 56 percent had an unfavorable view of him. In a recent CBS News/New York Times survey, Gingrich was viewed favorably by 17 percent of voters and unfavorably by 49 percent. In a Public Policy Polling survey, 26 percent saw him favorably and 60 percent unfavorably.

Gingrich in all three polls had higher negative ratings than Romney and President Barack Obama.

This level of negative perception may prove Gingrich’s undoing, although his win in South Carolina may improve the numbers. As Conn Carroll, senior editorial writer for the Washington Examiner, put it, “America does not love Romney, but, boy, do they hate Newt.”

Although Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have given no indication of quitting, the GOP nomination contest now is a two-man race, with many primary voters distrusting one option and disliking the other. Both men face the challenge of gaining credibility in the eyes of conservatives and, looking beyond the nomination battle, the general electorate. On to Florida.