Romney's final stumbling block?

Latest polling shows a dirty fight in South Carolina may be all that's holding him back from Obama.

Having squeezed through Iowa by 8 votes and won convincingly in New Hampshire, the road ahead looks pretty clear for the former Massachusetts Governor. He has campaigned pretty much ever since 2007, and now it seems as though Mitt Romney has finally seen off all of his challengers and is focussing his sights on the presidency.

One by one, Republican candidates ranging from former Speaker Gingrich, through Herman Cain the CEO of a pizza chain, Congresswoman Bachmann and Texas Governor Perry to former senator Santorum have each had their own surge (and decline) in the polls as Republicans tried to find someone that is not Mitt Romney. The problem with Romney -- or so think many Republicans -- is that he is not seen to be conservative enough for them. He's a moderate. And so they courted Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and Santorum. All the while, Romney's ratings remained fairly constant. That was another criticism: despite having the most money and arguably the most name recognition, Romney was not "energising the base" and there was no groundswell of support for him. It was said he was Mr 25 per cent.

Our Ipsos poll for Reuters of Republicans, released on the day of the New Hampshire primary, had Gov Romney on 30 per cent -- his highest since we began tracking in June 2011. The poll also shows that he has the best chance of defeating Obama in November. In a match up of Romney v Obama, the Republican is just 5 points behind the President. Ron Paul is the next closest but trails Obama by 7 points.

So what does Romney have to do now to seal the nomination? The answer is simple, and the same as it has been for a while: Don't mess up. The fabled "big mo" (momentum) is clearly with him, as is the money which is vital if the race drags on. South Carolina -- the next Primary -- poses a threat in a few ways. First, voters there are more conservative than in New Hampshire and this is a demographic in which Romney suffers. However, South Carolina tends to be more "establishment" in its taste, preferring well-known and established politicians unlike "outsiders", as preferred by Iowa.

Second, campaigns have a history of turning dirty in South Carolina and you can be pretty confident that Gingrich, Santorum and Paul campaigns are preparing attacks to bring down Romney in South Carolina. They'll attack him for "being liberal", flip-flopping on abortion, the similarities of his Massachusetts healthcare plan to that of Obama's controversial reform, and the current popular attack is to highlight his time at Bain where they say his job was to fire people; with high unemployment a big issue in the US that does not look good. It is unlikely, however, that these attacks will do enough to stop his move to becoming the nominee. Losing South Carolina may not even be too damaging to his campaign -- especially as he is financially and organisationally the best equipped for a long race of attrition.

Rick Perry will need to do very well in order to stay in the running. Having almost dropped out after placing fifth in Iowa and focussing his attention on South Carolina -- a state in which the more conservative Texan should feel more comfortable -- his fortunes lay heavily in the results of the next primary. Speaker Gingrich too will need to think long and hard about his chances if he misses out on the top spots. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are more likely to stay in and make this race last that bit longer before we can call Mitt Romney the Republican Presidential candidate for the 2012 race to the White House.

Tom Mludzinski is Deputy Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader agreed to back down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote. Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory"approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.