Power Play

Will Romney’s ‘Good Enough’ Strategy be Good Enough for Voters?

Will Romney’s ‘Good Enough’ Strategy be Good Enough for Voters?

"It's not an issues oriented campaign as much as character and authenticity and leadership, and I think we have those qualities that I think will attract folks."

-- Rick Santorum talking to reporters in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho about his chances to win the Republican nomination and the presidency.

It has been said thousands of times – even by this political note – that Mitt Romney must find a way to either seduce or compel a Republican base so far resistant to his candidacy.

The conventional wisdom has been that Romney needs to give voters something to believe in, not just a candidate to tolerate. And there’s no doubt that if Romney would become a crusader for any cause close to the conservative heart, he would make Republicans feel better about accepting him as their nominee.

But there’s something to be said for playing it safe.

Romney’s strategy so far has been to stake out mainstream conservative positions, tout his own resume (particularly its absence of Washington service) and kick the stuffing out of whichever Not Romney happened to be at the top of the polls at any given moment.

This is proving a trickier task with the current top Not Romney, Rick Santorum.

The former Pennsylvania Senator is a crusader whose campaign was for many months an effort to revive two old verities of Republicanism: an aggressive foreign policy and the championing of Judeo-Christian family values.

As Santorum was pleading to be heard himself, he was also pleading for a hearing of his issues, which had increasingly fallen out of favor in a party obsessed with slashing government. Government, Santorum was saying, has obligations other than to just be smaller. He has been the anti-Ron Paul.

As the other Not Romney’s have flamed out, Santorum plugged along. He doesn’t have the personal baggage of Newt Gingrich and unlike Rick Perry and Herman Cain, he is experienced enough in national politics to avoid the landmines. Scandal-free and gaffe-averse, Santorum is harder for Romney to explode.

Yes, Santorum has tender spots for Romney to exploit -- spending, support for unions, backing of former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, some gun control votes – but as part of the larger package of social issue and national security crusader, they seem less glaring.

While conservatives are prone to believe that past apostasies by Romney and Gingrich are evidence of shiftiness or deceit, Santorum is viewed more charitably. Perhaps it is because he has suffered so much ridicule from the left for his social views, especially on same-sex marriage, or perhaps it is because his personal life seems so exemplary.

It is not coincidental that Santorum’s rise came at the same moment Gingrich was dealing with the unseemly allegations of his second wife and Santorum was leaving the campaign trail to rush to the bedside of his toddler daughter, Bella, who was born stricken with a rare genetic disorder. Not only is Gingrich’s past discomforting to Republicans, but it is also a liability in a general election where the incumbent misses no chance to highlight his happy home and young family.

Santorum has yet to prove himself in the Republican heartland of the South, picking off caucus contests in northern states. But if he can dispatch Gingrich in the three-week delegate deluge that begins on Feb. 28, Santorum would be, at last, the winner of the Not Romney primary that has raged for a year.

But while Romney-averse voters may be feeling better personally about their standard-bearer, they don’t yet believe that Santorum is the best man to take on Obama.

The latest round of polls, which show Gingrich tumbling, Romney flat and Santorum surging to the top of the heap, also show something else: Republicans don’t believe Santorum is best suited to beat Obama.

In the new CNN poll, Santorum more than doubled his support from last month to take the lead with 34 percent to Romney’s 32 percent as Gingrich slid 10 points down to 18 percent. That’s in keeping with the latest average from Real Clear Politics.

But on the question of who Republicans believe will win their party’s nomination, 68 percent in the CNN poll said Romney, up 27 points from December.

More importantly, only 18 percent of Republican respondents said that Santorum has the best chance of beating Obama. The fact that nearly half of those supporting Santorum didn’t think he was the best man for the job in the fall is evidence of Santorum’s greatest weakness.

Maybe it is a belief even among social conservatives that Santorum’s views will make it too easy for Democrats to frighten suburban female voters. Maybe it’s a belief that Romney holds the key to moderate independents. Whatever it is, some of the same Republicans who love Santorum for championing core issues lately out of fashion in the GOP have qualms about him in a general election. It’s the big problem for Santorum.

Romney’s problem is that, unlike with his prior foes, he can’t address Santorum’s weakness head-on. Romney, whose evolving views on social issues are among his greatest weaknesses, can hardly say that Santorum is too far right on the same subjects. Accusations of insufficient squishiness are not big vote getters in Republican primaries.

Romney’s Super PAC can get closer, but making Santorum a martyr for his orthodox Catholicism ahead of Super Tuesday – especially when the White House is stoking accusations of religious intolerance – would be a disaster for Romney. He and the PAC men can freely whack at Santorum with accusations of being a big-government guy and a career politician, but they can’t touch the electability issue.

Which brings us back to Romney’s campaign strategy: Wait them out.

Romney has never asked for the passionate love of the Republican electorate. Instead, while all the others have sought to be the conservative alternative to him, he has sought to be the electable alternative to all of them. The Santorum team cracks that Romney’s message of “money and infrastructure” won’t make a very good bumper sticker. But how about this one: “Romney: Good Enough to Beat Obama.”

One can see Romney following a similar course in a general election: an acceptable alternative to an unacceptable incumbent. Not sexy, but maybe the best choice for a guy whose main selling point is his managerial skill.

And so, Romney enters the white-knuckle phase of his candidacy.

Will voter’s doubts about Santorum’s electability break the fever that has swept through the Republican electorate during this month-long hiatus from voting? Will it happen in time for Romney to regain his front-runner status before Republicans in his native Michigan go to the polls? Will Obama’s recent political revival prompt a flight to safety in the GOP?

He had better hope so, because if Romney’s “good enough” strategy fails him now, it will be a very long road to Tampa.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“I think all of them [House Republicans, Senate Democrats and President Obama] are being incredibly irresponsible. But in an election year this is what you expect. And I think the Republicans -- it's understandable, they are not going to engage in unilateral disarmament and hand the issue over to Obama simply because he wants to give away everything the store instead of offsetting some of it.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.