Assuming today’s CNN/ORC poll is accurate, the once assumed Romney Republican nomination would appear to be in enough trouble to make even his staunchest supporters queasy. In this national poll the nomination race between Romney (32%) and Santorum (34%) is a virtual dead heat
The problems for Romney are only increasing. The trend is dramatically away from him. His favorability rating dropped 13% among Republicans (54 % vs. 67%) since the same January poll and down 8% among all Americans (34% vs. 41%). In that same in that period (56% from 49%). Santorum’s favorability among Republicans has risen 8%, although his favorability rating among all Americans has not budged going from 31% in January to 32%. One curious note about the survey is that Gingrich still is seen as a better versed candidate on foreign policy although Santorum leads Gingrich on abortion and Romney leads all on economic issues.
Santorum is emerging as the anyone but Romney candidate as he continues to be seen as a less divisive force. Santorum got to this place with little money before his triple header win last Tuesday opened the financial spigots for him.
While it is still about delegates and it is a series of state primaries and caucuses not a national popularity contest, Romney needs to correct not only the victories but the image by Super Tuesday, three weeks from today. For the Romney team they need momentum as much as they need wins on Super Tuesday. They need delegates—they lead Santorum 123-72 with 1144 needed for the nomination–to show they are leading but also to convince the GOP that Romney can struggle through adversity and take the lead back—for good. The delegate picture will begin to move first with the Michigan and Arizona primaries on February 28 with 59 delegates to be selected and then on March 6 when there will be seven primaries and three caucuses with a total of 437 delegates at stake.
The debates in Arizona on February 22 and in Georgia on March 1 may be crucial for Romney as he seeks to regroup and regain the image of front-runner not only in delegate counts but in favorability. Those debates may also be especially critical for Gingrich who has been fading so fast that he could be out of the picture after Super Tuesday.
The Romney campaign is at its most vulnerable now and needs to change the tone and the atmospherics as well as the substance. Otherwise the struggle for the nomination will make Romney a dramatically weakened candidate in the general election. If he truly falters now, a brokered convention in Tampa will loom ever more likely.