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26 March 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 5:35am

Romney still can’t light a fire under Republicans

Evangelicals and others conservatives are still tepid about Romney's candidacy.

By John Stoehr

Mitt Romney’s foot is having a love affair with his mouth. Instead of basking in the glow of victory after winning Florida, the GOP front-runner spent the week defending remarks he made about not caring for the poor and that if the safety net were broken, he’d fix it. Those are two things you don’t want to say if you don’t want to be blasted from the left and the right. Liberals thought it was heartless while conservatives wondered if this guy is really conservative (answer: no).

Romney didn’t say anything that dumb after winning Illinois but Eric Fehrnstrom, his top aide, did. He told CNN that his candidate had not tacked too far to the right for the general election and that the summer offers the opportunity to start over: “It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch,” he said. “You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again.”

In the age of the internet, never give the enemy a meme to use against you. Unfortunately for Romney, that iconic kid’s toy was just that kind of meme, a symbol that’s ironic, retro and suggestive of the kind of president Romney might be. Within hours of Fehrnstrom’s comment, wrote Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo, operatives both Democratic and Republican were shoving the meme down the media’s throat.

“It seemed every political flack in the country not aligned with Romney’s campaign had their own video, one-off website or stunt to hammer the message home,” Sarlin wrote.

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This after Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and brother of former President George W. Bush, gave Romney his blessing. Bush’s endorsement was widely seen as the final stage in Romney ascent to the nomination. Basically, Bush was saying: Hey guys, let’s wrap this up.

Too bad no one knew that a majority of voters in Louisiana would cite the Etch-a-Sketch comment in their decision to vote for Rick Santorum. In fairness, Santorum was polling so well in the run-up to the primary that Nate Silver, of the New York Times, gave him a 97 per cent change of taking the state. And Santorum’s social conservatism has performed well generally in the American South, where he took Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Even so, Romney still walked away with some delegates. As you know if you’ve been keeping score, the Republican Party changed the rules this year so that delegates are supposed to be awarded on a proportional basis. That means no one really “wins” a state unless the state has chosen to ignore the national party’s rule (winner takes all, instead) or unless the candidate wins by a huge margin of victory. Because Louisiana is proportional, Romney, who won 26.7 percent of the votes to Santorum’s 49, still gets a percentage of Louisiana’s 20 delegates.

What does Santorum’s victory mean? I suspect that not much has changed. Romney still has more than double the delegates that Santorum has. Upcoming primaries, moreover, are being held in states that favor Romney, like Maryland, Wisconsin, New York and Connecticut. In fact, a win in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania would be the final nail in the coffin, as it would send the message: I’m the man.

So the numbers are in his favor, but numbers don’t mean as much in the general election. What matters are votes — and Romney can’t light a fire under Republicans. Conservatives have a history of getting in line once a nominee has emerged, but they don’t have a good history of voting if they don’t feel something for the candidate.

That’s what Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s adviser, worried about in 2004 — getting enough evangelical Christians out to tip the scales in his candidate’s favor. Evangelicals and others conservatives are still tepid about Romney. They may get in line, but more importantly, they have to vote. With exit polls showing historically low voter turnout in every state except one, that doesn’t bode well for Romney.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.