Power Play

Obama Opens Swing State Lead Amid GOP Infighting

Chris Stirewalt and Lou Dobbs discuss independent voters and the latest polling.


Obama Opens Swing State Lead Amid GOP Infighting; Congress to Cool It for Awhile

Long Process Isn’t Helping Republicans in November Battlegrounds

“8.5 percent”

-- President Obama’s average lead against Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a new FOX News poll of 10 battleground states: Ohio, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina and New Mexico.

It’s getting harder for Republicans to argue that their protracted nomination process isn’t doing serious damage to their chances of unseating President Obama in the fall.

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The latest FOX News swing state poll has some sobering news for the Republicans. Not only do both of their current frontrunners, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, trail nationally (Romney trails by 5 points in all states, Santorum by 12), but they lose in the 10 key states that are likely to decide the election.

While Santorum can tout the fact that his margin of defeat falls to 9 points in the battleground states (which include his former home state of Pennsylvania), both he and Romney got shellacked, with the former Massachusetts governor trailing Obama by 8 points in the swing states.

In a FOX News poll from the same time in 2008 (then conducted with research firm Opinion Dynamics) eventual Democratic nominee Barack Obama led already inevitable Republican nominee John McCain by 4 points nationally.

Though McCain once popped up to a 3-point lead during the Democratic nomination fight that year, Obama generally led in head-to-head matchups throughout the process. By the end of the Democratic derby in June, Obama was still ahead by 4 points.

The difference likely has a lot to do with tone.

With Republican voters generally unsatisfied with the choices on offer, the primary process has often turned intensely negative. Romney has sought to disqualify his challengers and his challengers have sought to disqualify him. Add in Super PACs – unlimited in spending and unbound by the expectations of decorum and civility that keep campaigns on a leash – and you have a very ugly-looking process.

That means that in key general-election states like Iowa, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Nevada, persuadable voters, mostly independent-minded moderates, have already seen very unpleasant renderings of all the remaining contenders.

Meanwhile, Obama and his fellow Democrats are missing no opportunity to reinforce these negatives as the Republican road show moves from swing state to swing state. They are currently buttressing Santorum’s attacks on Romney in Michigan. Last month, it was Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Romney in Florida that labor unions and Democrats were touting.

Then, when the president hits the campaign trail, he is free to talk up the economy and keep selling his plan for manufacturing and a blue-collar renaissance achieved by government spending. It’s something his party has been selling in the Rust Belt since the 1970s, and sometimes it works.

Only twice in modern political history has an open Republican nominating contest produced a general election candidate that thrilled the GOP base, Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.

In the nine other contests since the end of World War II, the process was more about acceptance than enthusiasm. Because of the distrust between the two halves of Republican coalition – a base of heartland conservatives and a hierarchy of urban pro-business moderates -- the party’s process is most often a struggle to find a broadly acceptable choice.

So why on earth would a party such as this decide to prolong its nominating process? That would be like having a long engagement before an arranged marriage. It’s just asking for trouble.

After the 2008 contest Republicans were envious of the Democratic drama that had carried on for months as Hillary Clinton slowly succumbed to Obama. So Republicans rearranged their calendar to drag out the process for 2012.

Now, as Republican voters grow weary of the process and an incumbent Democratic president is free to campaign and define the issues of the race, the Republicans remain locked in mortal combat.

On this day in 2008, the Republican frontrunner had 827 delegates, more than double his two closest competitors combined and almost 70 percent of the total needed to clinch the nomination.

Today, even counting projected delegate hauls based on straw polls in states that don’t hold primary elections, the Republican frontrunner has 105 delegates, only five more than his two closest competitors combined and only 9 percent of the total needed to clinch the nomination.

That means that whoever wins the Republican nomination, it will still be a long time in coming. If Romney performs very well on the three-week, delegate-rich run that begins on Feb. 28, he could shorten the process dramatically, but a strong showing by either of his pursuers or a split decision would mean it could be May before any clarity comes to the race.

Some Republicans argue that the process should go longer so that voters can learn as much as possible about the candidates and put them to the test. But the discoveries have mostly been unhappy. That edifies Republicans, but it is a turnoff for general-election voters.

The best argument for a protracted process is that it holds the American electorate’s attention. If there weren’t such drama and so many surprises in the GOP, the Obama Democrats would have nearly unlimited opportunities to praise the president and pummel the Republican nominee.

No doubt that if Romney had run the table in January as once looked possible and was already well on his way to inevitability, he would be quickly forgotten by the establishment press, except as a foil for Obama. A quick coronation would have left Romney moldering for many months.

So maybe it could have been worse for Republicans, but the current situation suggests that it certainly could be a lot better.

Congress Surrenders

“How long can you keep banging your head on the same wall?”

-- A Republican House member in an email to Power Play on the deal between Senate and House negotiators of more than $150 billion to extend a 2 percent Social Security tax holiday, long-term unemployment payments and, for a 10th consecutive year, prevent scheduled cuts to Medicare payments.

Early this morning, negotiators for House Republicans and Senate Democrats came to a deal on how to untangle a politically charged fight over tax rates, welfare payments for the unemployed and payments to Medicare providers.

Republicans withdrew their objections to continuing the tax rate for another year without finding money to replace what would be taken from Social Security. Democrats, meanwhile, abandoned their position that the welfare and Medicare spending be financed partly with deficit spending and allowed for the spending to be offset.

The tax side of the package makes up $94 billion of the total of more than $150 billion, so Democrats were willing to accept concessions on the spending side. The current spending is to be financed in the future by selling FCC-controlled bandwidth, eliminating some line items in the president’s health care law and by requiring new federal employees to pay for part of their retirement benefits.

The federal worker bit is a pretty big win for Republicans since it sets a new precedent for the unionized federal workforce. Republicans also won provisions that curbed what had turned into a national standard of 99-week unemployment benefits. The term will be shortened and states may be allowed to drug test some beneficiaries.

The payroll tax is a big win for Democrats since it is central to their trickle-up theory of economic stimulus. Democrats believe their policies are helping the economic recovery, which they further believe will leave them sitting pretty in November. And since Democrats also believe that Republicans are engaged in willful economic sabotage, they are willing to pay dearly to keep their economic policies in place.

But all in all, the agreement is to maintain the status quo until after the elections. With Washington more starkly divided between liberals and conservatives than ever, there may not be any other way.

There will be a few days of bickering over provisions and specific language and there’s always the chance of a surprise ending, but this looks like a Congress ready to quit making laws for a while.

Much of the remaining legislative year will be given over to grinding out spending authorization packages to formalize the broader spending agreement reached as part of the bargain to increase the federal debt limit last summer. There will be plenty of posturing, but it looks like Congress will be wrapping up extra early this election year.

With the Senate frozen and consequential votes all requiring massive angst in the House, there’s little to be said for staying busy. The more Congress is in the news, the more voters dislike the institution. Republicans have to get busy defending lots of new House seats and Democrats are facing their stiffest challenge yet in retaining their Senate majority won in a six-seat swing in 2006.

After a brutal year fighting over big fiscal issues, Congress seems to have simply run out of gas.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Obama is on an uptick. The economy looks stronger. The Republicans in Congress have mishandled affairs and the presidential candidates are destroying each other. It's been a good run for Obama.”

-- 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.