Evan­gel­i­cal states sketchy for Rom­ney

Pri­mary sched­ule keeps him on track to vic­tory

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

CHICAGO| Mitt Rom­ney’s lop­sided vic­tory in Illi­nois this week showed again that he’s hard to beat in states with more mod­er­ate, less evan­gel­i­cal­minded vot­ers — a good sign for the for­mer Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor when that de­scribes most of the big prizes left on the Re­pub­li­can pri­mary sched­ule.

In the weeks ahead, most of the del­e­gate-rich states left on the map more closely re­sem­ble the elec­torates in Ohio and Florida, where Mr. Rom­ney won, than the vot­ers in Ge­or­gia and Mis­sis­sippi, where evan­gel­i­cals shied away from the for­mer gov­er­nor.

In the 16 states where exit polls have been con­ducted, Mr. Rom­ney won cau­cuses or pri­maries in the 10 states where evan­gel­i­cal or born-again Chris­tians made up less than half of the vot­ers.

It was a dif­fer­ent story in the other six races where vot­ers were polled. In Iowa, where evan­gel­i­cals make up 56 per­cent, and in Mis­sis­sippi, where that per­cent­age jumped to 80, Mr. Rom­ney lost to Rick San­to­rum.

One de­vel­op­ment that should help, even among evan­gel­i­cals, came Wed­nes­day when the Rom­ney cam­paign scored a cov­eted en­dorse­ment from Jeb Bush, brother and son of for­mer pres­i­dents.

Mak­ing his en­dorse­ment one day af­ter Mr. Rom­ney’s im­pres­sive win in Illi­nois, the for­mer Florida gov­er­nor said it was time for the GOP to rally around Mr. Rom­ney.

In Illi­nois, just 4 in 10 vot­ers iden­ti­fied them­selves as evan­gel­i­cal or born-again.

The vic­tory helped Mr. Rom­ney ex­tend his del­e­gate count to 563, more than 300 ahead of Mr. San­to­rum and well on the way to the 1,144 needed to sew up the nom­i­na­tion be­fore the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Tampa, Fla., in late Au­gust.

“Rom­ney is go­ing to win this thing,” said John Fee­hery, a GOP strate­gist. “Evan­gel­i­cals are not in his camp, but they don’t con­trol a ma­jor­ity of the del­e­gates.”

If the Rom­ney pat­tern holds, though, look for a tough day for the for­mer gov­er­nor in Satur­day’s Louisiana pri­mary, where nearly 6 in 10 vot­ers leaned evan­gel­i­cal in 2008, help­ing for­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee out­per­form Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona, the party’s even­tual nom­i­nee.

The Realclearpol­i­tics web­site’s av­er­age of polls out of Louisiana show Mr. San­to­rum lead­ing Mr. Rom­ney by 8 per­cent­age points, with for­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich, whose two wins in Ge­or­gia and South Carolina were aided by a large evan­gel­i­cal turnout, sit­ting in a close third place.

Mr. Gin­grich has been tout­ing an en­ergy plan that he says would help the oil-rich re­gion and drive prices at the pump south of $2.50 a gal­lon.

But, as with Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi, Mr. Rom­ney will ben­e­fit from the pro­por­tional award­ing of del­e­gates, giv­ing the for­mer gov­er­nor a chance to grab at least some of the 46 del­e­gates at stake.

Af­ter Satur­day, Mr. Rom­ney is in more hos­pitable ter­ri­tory, start­ing with the three win­ner-take-all con­tests on April 3 — Wis­con­sin, the Dis­trict of Columbia and Mary­land, where more than 98 del­e­gates are up for grabs.

Exit polling in 2008 in Mary­land and Wis­con­sin showed evan­gel­i­cals didn’t play a large role in those states. The same is true for New York, Cal­i­for­nia and New Jer­sey, which all have large del­e­gate to­tals and have yet to vote.

Barry C. Bur­den, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, said that if the trend from the nom­i­na­tion con­tests holds true, then Mr. San­to­rum “will not score well” in Wis­con­sin.

“In the 2008 Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, only 38 per­cent called them­selves born-again or evan­gel­i­cal,” Mr. Bur­den said. “Per­haps that was partly a re­sult of Huck­abee not gen­er­at­ing as much at­ten­tion at that point in the race, but I would not sug­gest the per­cent­age to be much higher this time around.”

Larry Sa­bato of the Univer­sity of Virginia’s Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics said that at this point in the race it is clear that the mo­men­tum has piv­oted pri­mar­ily on who votes — not the is­sues be­ing es­poused on the cam­paign trail.

“This has ac­tu­ally been a fairly easy con­test to project,” Mr. Sa­bato said. “Sin­gle is­sues aren’t pro­pel­ling the can­di­dates; over­all im­pres­sions among key con­stituen­cies in the GOP are. Mitt gets wealthy, col­lege-ed­u­cated, non-evan­gel­i­cals in­clud­ing Catholics, and the Catholic San­to­rum gets mid­dle-class, high school-ed­u­cated evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants. Gin­grich also used to do well in San­to­rum’s base be­fore this be­came a two-man race.”

The big­gest pot­hole on Mr. Rom­ney’s path to the nom­i­na­tion re­mains Texas, where Mr. San­to­rum is polling well ahead of the field. With a large evan­gel­i­cal voter pop­u­la­tion and the sec­ond high­est num­ber of del­e­gates of any state, Texas hasn’t warmed to Mr. Rom­ney — but Texas also awards its del­e­gates pro­por­tion­ally, which will soften any blow Team Rom­ney might be fac­ing in the Lone Star State.

Many evan­gel­i­cals in the states that have voted so far have ques­tioned Mr. Rom­ney’s com­mit­ment to their core is­sues. They par­tic­u­larly ques­tioned his con­ver­sion from pro-choice to pro-life as gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts.

Those per­sis­tent sus­pi­cions were stoked again Wed­nes­day when top aide Eric Fehn­strom told CNN that Mr. Rom­ney could re­vamp his cam­paign af­ter he wins the nom­i­na­tion.

“I think you hit a re­set but­ton for the fall cam­paign. Ev­ery­thing changes,” he said. “It’s al­most like an Etch-a-sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

His op­po­nents pounced. Both Mr. Gin­grich and Mr. San­to­rum were cap­tured in pho­tos play­ing with Etch-asketch toys, and the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee glee­fully high­lighted the story for re­porters.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

For­mer Sen. Rick San­to­rum of Penn­syl­va­nia, a Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, holds an Etch A Sketch dur­ing a rally in Man­dev­ille, La., on Wed­nes­day.

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