Crashing at home

    Roger Simon, the veteran political columnist, likes to quote the jokey old adage about how pundits are “often wrong but never in doubt.”  We’re paid to make strong assertions – in Simon’s words, “opinions backed up by reporting” – but it’s an inexact science. As we shall see, momentarily.Simon, characteristically self-deprecating, invoked the adage yesterday while speaking at my invitation at the University of Pennsylvania. We had a laugh about that earlier, while swapping news about a new Pennsylvania poll of Republican voters which says that Rick Santorum’s 29-point February lead over Mitt Romney has stunningly evaporated. Santorum now leads Romney by two points.To which I can only say (with apologies to Rick Perry), “Oops.” Nine days ago, on this blog, I contended that Santorum was well positioned to win the April 24 Pennsylvania primary, largely because the state’s GOP electorate is more socially conservative than ever (thanks to a huge exodus of moderates) – and therefore, that the likeliest primary voters would surely be more receptive to Santorum’s edgy ideological pitch than to Romney’s market-tested squishiness.Yet now we have late-breaking evidence, from the respected Franklin & Marshall College Poll, that the opposite seems to be happening, that Santorum is crashing on his old home turf. This is potentially significant, because if Pennsylvania rejects him for the second time – the first, of course, was his ‘06 Senate re-election wipeout – he’s likely to be stuck with a big surplus of unsold sweater vests.So why the poll plummet?The most credible explanation: Even diehard conservatives are starting to think that it’s time to shut down the Republican race; that Santorum’s focus on traditional family values would be stone-cold loser in a general election; that voters care most about the economy, and that Romney, while grievously deficient in many ways, is far better suited to debate the economy and dog President Obama all the way to November. As Roger Simon told our audience at Penn’s Kelly Writers House, “Obama would love the election to be about anything but the economy.”Some party insiders told me yesterday that Santorum’s inability to beat Romney in the swing-state and big-state primaries (Michigan, Ohio, Illinois) have convinced a lot of Santorum fans in Pennsylvania that pragmatism is now the prudent course – and that a Santorum loss next Tuesday in swing-state Wisconsin will sway even more. As tea-partying Philadelphian Pam Todd told Reuters the other day, “I feel that perhaps Romney is the most electable. I like Rick very, very much. I admire his guts. But he sometimes get down in the weeds on the social issues.”Romney is also well positioned, financially speaking, to nurture this sentiment in Pennsylvania. He has the requisite advertising bucks to saturate the state’s expensive media markets; Santorum does not. It’s a safe bet that Restore Our Future, the Romney-allied Super PAC , will pepper Pennsylvanians with TV messages designed to remind them what they disliked about Santorum when they heaved him out of office by 18 points. Only a small slice of those TV viewers will actually vote (the primary is open only to registered Republicans), but, hey, what’s a little overkill when you’ve got the money to do it?And so, despite all the wild gyrations in this Republican race, the party is nudging ever closer toward its traditional end game: choosing as its nominee the guy who was “next in line” (having run before), someone who fails to excite the conservative base but wins points, albeit grudgingly, for his prospective electability. In other words, Romney fits the semi-centrist mold of Richard Nixon in 1968, George H. W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2008. (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were exceptions – they excited the base – but even Reagan was next in line, winning the ’80 nomination on his second try, and Bush junior was deemed next in line because of the family pedigree and his dad’s far-flung network.)The caveat, of course, is that not all such nominees are successful. Dole and McCain both lost by healthy margins, and Santorum contends that Romney is too centrist, too conviction-lite. If Romney wins Pennsylvania and effectively ends the Santorum challenge, many in the party will still be asking themselves whether Mitt has the right stuff for an autumn fight. Especially if the numbers in late April look anything like the new CNN/ORC poll, which has Obama topping Romney by double digits nationwide.Simon, in his talk yesterday, outlined the basic GOP challenge: “Obama won by seven points in 2008. He knows that won’t happen again. But even if he wins by one or two, he still gets to be president…And he won’t lose just because the economy still stinks or because gas prices are high or because the Supreme Court stops his attempts to bring health care to every American. Someone is still going to have to take the job away from him. You can’t beat an incumbent president with just economics. You need to have a human being that people can believe in.”But, hey, if  Santorum somehow reverses his poll slide and somehow re-scrambles the entire race by winning big in Pennsylvania – a victory I foresaw nine days ago – just remember that you read it here first. Often right, and never in doubt!——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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