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Tim Stanley: So far so good for Romney, but 'Mittmentum’ may not last long

MITT Romney is the first Republican in history to win both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. If he wins South Carolina on January 21, he’ll sweep the nomination. He’s got the money, the looks and the brains to go all the way to the White House. He’s got Mittmentum.

But Romney’s nomination could prove to be a poisoned chalice. He may have won Iowa and New Hampshire, but his opponents put up a fierce if ungentlemanly fight (biting and scratching were allowed) and he emerges from these contests badly scarred. The very act of winning the Republican nomination might have put the presidency beyond his reach.

Certainly, the attacks of the past few weeks will haunt Romney forever. Newt Gingrich spoke for a lot of conservatives when he called him “a timid Massachusetts moderate”. “Massachusetts” is particularly insulting, as the state that Romney once governed is notoriously liberal – and Romney governed as a liberal in order to win elections there. He has changed his positions since, but once upon a time he was in favour of abortion and gay rights. Suspicion that Romney is still a closet progressive may cause many conservatives to sit out the presidential election in November, while his U-turns strike many non-Republicans as cynical electioneering.

Romney’s past career as a venture capitalist has also been mined by his opponents for evidence of elitism. It seems that the former businessman ran his Bain Capital group like Michael Douglas in Wall Street – taking on failing companies, stripping them down, sacking half the workforce and then selling on what’s left at an inflated price. Perhaps that’s the American way, but it doesn’t exactly smell like apple pie to voters stuck in a recession. Romney didn’t help matters when he told an audience in New Hampshire that he liked to fire people who provided inadequate services. In Mitt’s defence, no one wants to be saddled with an alcoholic nanny or a kleptomaniac maid. But his joyful tone suggested that he would take real pleasure in telling them to pack their bags and go. Already the Democratic National Committee is running ads quoting the “I like to fire” line. Only the day after Romney let it slip, Vice President Joe Biden told a rally in New Hampshire: “Romney thinks it’s more important for the stockholders, shareholders and the investors, the venture capital guys, to do well than for employees to be part of the bargain.” The prospect of a Romney nomination seems to be helping the Democrats rediscover their inner populist.

All these character assaults could damage his chances of winning over the people he needs most: economically distressed, non-aligned voters. In the US, citizens can register as Republican, Democrat or independent. Romney isn’t going to attract many Democrats, but the independent vote – which is at an all-time high of 40 per cent of the electorate – is very much up for grabs. Such people are frustrated with “politics as usual” and are looking for mainstream, pragmatic solutions to their problems. The fact that half of the voters in the New Hampshire primary were independents – 85 per cent had never voted in a Republican primary before – suggests that they are willing to give the Republicans a hearing.

But that massive independent turnout didn’t all go to Romney. Thirty one per cent of it went for maverick libertarian Ron Paul, 27 per cent to Mitt Romney and 23 per cent to the centrist Jon Huntsman. Indeed, Romney’s victory in New Hampshire was very much a coronation by his party’s wealthy base, not a peasant’s revolt. His biggest margin was among those making more than $200,000, followed by those making $100,000 to $200,000. He lost those making under $50,000 by four points. Again, as soon as these figures came out, the White House was using them to brief against Romney. “So he loses independents and low-income voters,” said an Obama campaign official. “His [corporate raiding] isn’t going to help these things.” To be sure, Romney finished fourth among voters looking for “strong moral character”.

Hypothetical national polls now put Romney and Obama in a statistical dead heat. Romney has 10 months to improve his standing among independents, but the President has several advantages. He enjoys a reputation as the man who killed Osama bin Laden and he has the heft that incumbency brings. Best of all, America is starting to create jobs again. Unemployment may stand at a depressing 8.5 per cent, but that’s exactly what it was one year before Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984.

So while the Republicans seem to have settled on their nominee, they have done so with little enthusiasm and with a grave suspicion that Romney was simply the best of a bad bunch. As I was driven out of New Hampshire, my taxi driver put it this way: “Mitt Romney might not be Barack Obama, and that’s a good thing. But the problem is that he is Mitt Romney. A choice between an idiot and a crook – man, that’s no choice at