WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney looks like the weakest front-runner for a party's presidential nomination in decades right now, one who could limp to the Republican nomination, then drag the Republican Party down to defeat in the fall.
Looks can deceive.
Assuming he secures the nomination by the Republican National Convention in August, there's every reason to believe that his party would close ranks behind its challenger to President Barack Obama. And the widespread disquiet in the American public over the state of the economy, federal finance and dysfunction in Washington could give him an opening to appeal anew for independents to support him as the can-do candidate of change.
There are precedents.
Ronald Reagan in spring of 1980 was neck and neck with President Jimmy Carter. He rallied his party, assured the country he was a safe choice, and promised a turnaround from an ailing economy. He won in a landslide.
George H.W. Bush at this stage in 1988 was trying to fight off the perception that he was a "wimp" in Reagan's shadow. He delivered a strong speech at his convention, then unleashed a take-no-prisoners campaign against Michael Dukakis, who ran one of the weakest general-election campaigns in modern politics.
And Bill Clinton in the spring of 1992 was winning the Democratic nomination, but appeared tarred by repeated stories of womanizing and draft dodging. As late as May, Clinton was in third place in a three-way race. But he picked Al Gore as a running-mate who boosted his standing, had an impressive convention and strong debates, and went on to win the close three-way race.
Romney is not in the exact same spot, of course. He does not have the political skills of a Reagan or Clinton. He doesn't face as weak an opponent as Dukakis.
And his crawl toward the Republican nomination has indeed revealed weaknesses.
He has, for example, struggled to win the support of the white working class, a disconnect aggravated not only his vast wealth but by his awkward comments - he boasted to racing fans that he has friends who own Nascar teams, told a Detroit audience his wife Ann drives a "coupla Cadillacs" and once boasted of how much he likes to fire people - suggesting that he identifies with the elite, not working Americans.
He also is struggling to clinch the nomination at a point when John McCain had it wrapped up four years ago.
And as the unusually nasty campaign drags on, it's driving up ill will among all voters toward Romney. A new Rasmussen Poll this week found that 49 percent of general election voters have an unfavorable opinion of him, with almost half of them - 23 percent - having a very negative opinion.
"Romney may be winning the Republican presidential race, although he appears to be making himself a little less popular in the process," said pollster Scott Rasmussen.
Much could change by late summer, however.
First, the economy remains fragile, the county remains anxious about the future and deeply divided over Obama.
In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, Americans by a 2-1 margin think the country's headed in the wrong direction. Several polls find only half - or fewer - approve of the way Obama's doing his job.
That makes Obama vulnerable. Could Romney take advantage?
Some of Romney's apparent weakness comes from the calendar, not his chemistry with voters. The party changed the rules this year to stretch out the nominating process, pushing primaries later and allowing second-place finishers to win delegates. They saw Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaign through 57 caucuses and primaries in 2008, a tough struggle that may have helped more than hurt their party.
While he loses white working-class voters in primaries, they might be more open to him in a general election. Those voters did not like Obama in 2008, and they're likely no more enthused about him now.
Similarly, he looks weak in the South, where he's lost South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee (but finished second in each.) He could lose Alabama and Mississippi next week as well.
But those states remain Republican bastions, and are likely to go Republican in the fall, regardless of who heads the ticket.
"Romney certainly is weak in the South in Republican primaries, but I think he will inherit the South and border states in November, with maybe a couple exceptions," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Also, the social issues such as contraception that grabbed headlines in recent days - where a hard-line stand can turn off independents and suburban moderates - were driven mostly by Santorum, not Romney.
"You will not hear anything from Mitt Romney about ...contraception," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is neutral in the Republican primaries. "He understands that that's not something the American people are going to care about or want to hear about. Many of these social issues that have seemed to dominate the headlines recently are going to disappear once Mitt Romney gets the nomination."
Finally, Romney remains close to Obama, trailing by 5 points in an average of recent public polls by realclearpolitics.com.
"It's basically a margin of error race even at Romney's lowest point, before he's really started running the campaign," said Ayres. "So I think it's likely to be a very close race."
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