Damage to the Republican brand

Rick Santorum's exit from the fight for the Republican presidential nomination was a belated recognition that he was outgunned by Mitt Romney's huge financial advantage. But the damage Mr. Santorum inflicted on the GOP brand in the process leaves Mr. Romney leading a divided party in which he remains an uncomfortable fit.

The man who has oddly described himself to be "severely conservative" stands on the brink of nomination despite the party base's general coolness toward him and despite the divisions in its ranks that frustrated his efforts to nail down the nomination for so long.

Mr. Santorum's candidacy, and to a lesser degree that of Newt Gingrich, provided resistant voters ready escape from the well-oiled Romney steamroller throughout several months of intensive campaigning and a television advertising blitzkrieg.

This resistance to Mr. Romney resulted not simply from the bland candidate's failure to light a fire in Republican and independent hearts. It came also from strong doubts about his reliability on the litmus-test social issues that animate the tea party and evangelical groups now holding the whole Republican Party hostage.

The challenge for Mr. Romney now is whether he can pivot to more centrist positions to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents without feeding further resistance from all those voters who took refuge or were true believers in the Santorum and Gingrich candidacies.

However, the bitter and mean-spirited charges that were exchanged among the leading GOP candidates in this season's primaries and caucuses, with mixed outcomes over many weeks, damaged not only Mr. Romney but also the party as a hopelessly feuding rabble.

Through it all, there were only a few common elements that offered the basis for post-nomination Republican unity. They were the goals of ousting Barack Obama from the presidency, repealing his health care law, and speeding the recovery of an economy many insist remains in recession.

The first of these remains the best potential rallying point for Mr. Romney once he becomes the Republican nominee, as now seems certain. No matter what happens between now and November, including the impending Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the health care law and any continued improvement in the economy, the visceral dislike of Mr. Obama appears to remain imbedded in many conservative hearts.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the health care issue is certain to be prime fodder for further debate in the fall campaign. In the event the court rules against Mr. Obama, the provisions in the act that have wide appeal -- including the extension of coverage to dependents up to age 26 and to patients with pre-existing conditions -- will give the president strong political points to raise in the campaign.

As for the economy, with the important exception of the continuing rise in gas prices at the pump, public laments appear to be softening somewhat in light of employment gains in the auto industry and selected other manufacturing occupations.

As strong as the animosity toward Mr. Obama may remain in the core of the Republican Party, that alone is probably not going to be sufficient to undo the president as long as Mr. Romney's own support is so soft and unenthusiastic. His clear weakness in the polls among women has obliged him to put forward his wife, Ann, as a surrogate -- hardly the ideal reinforcement for a man trying to sell himself as a national leader.

There was a time not too long ago when the Republican Party could carry a presidential nominee to victory on its own label. In 1988, after two terms of Ronald Reagan, his vice president, the senior George Bush, arguably rode into the Oval Office on his coattails and party label, with a push from the uninspiring Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis.

But today's Grand Old Party suffers from a major identity problem, divided by the ravages of the 2012 quest for its nominee, and now counting mostly on public discontent with the Democratic incumbent. Hoping for one's opposition to fail, or relying on it, is not a particularly uplifting formula for a successful presidential campaign.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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