By Lisa Keen
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s campaign appears to have begun to self-destruct from the candidate’s increasingly harsh rhetoric and statements on social issues. And Mitt Romney, despite a scandal surrounding a campaign co-chair in Arizona who was outed as gay, rode to victory in Tuesday’s two key Republican primaries – Michigan and Arizona – to resume his previously held position as frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Romney’s victory speech Tuesday night noted how pundits had begun to count him out following Santorum’s victories in three states earlier in the month. He then turned his attention to President Obama, saying Obama bears the blame for the failed economy because he failed to fix it during his first two years in office when he had a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. And Romney reiterated some big promises – a 20 percent tax cut for all Americans and the end of the tax on estates.
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of the national gay conservative group GOProud, said Romney’s wins were “particularly pivotal given the recent surge by former Senator Rick Santorum.”
“Most Republicans realize Santorum’s decision to use social issues as the centerpiece of his campaign is exactly what the Democrats want. The Democrats,” said LaSalvia, “want to have an election based on social issues because they can’t defend Obama’s record on jobs and the economy.”
Santorum’s concession speech from Grand Rapids mostly eschewed mention of social issues, focusing instead on economic matters and the president’s health reform law. But he did claim President Obama was attempting to “tell you how to exercise your faith.”
In the Michigan primary, which allowed any voter, regardless of party affiliation, to request a ballot for the Republican primary, Romney took 41 percent of the vote, compared to Santorum’s 38, Ron Paul’s 12, and Newt Gingrich’s seven percent.
In Arizona, Romney won 48 percent of the vote, compared to Santorum’s 26, Paul’s 16, and Gingrich’s eight.
CNN’s exit polling in Michigan did not ask any questions to discern how many Republican voters were gay or how voters felt about such issues as same-sex marriage. But the exit poll showed that most unmarried voters supported Romney. In Michigan, Romney won 39 percent of unmarried Republican voters support, compared to 32 percent for Santorum, 21 percent for Paul, five percent for Gingrich, and three percent committed to no candidate or one of the other candidates on the ballot. In Arizona, the exit poll did not ask voters whether they were married.
Joe Sylvester, chairman of the Michigan Log Cabin Republicans, said the “vast majority” of Log Cabin members in Michigan were supporting Romney, with “a distant second” for Ron Paul.
But in Arizona, the Public Policy Poll asked 515 likely Republican voters just prior to Tuesday, “Are you more concerned with a candidate’s position on economic issues like jobs, spending, taxes, and bailouts, or a candidate’s position on social issues like abortion, birth control, gay marriage and immigration?”
The vast majority – 68 percent – said economic issues, and only 11 percent cited “social issues.” Twenty-one percent were not sure.
Openly gay candidate Fred Karger was on the ballot for only the second time during the primary contest – this time in Michigan. As in New Hampshire, Karger won less than one percent of the vote in the Michigan Republican primary, coming in 10th out of 11 candidates, behind many candidates who are no longer running but whose names were withdrawn too late to remove their names from the ballots. Karger beat only former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson who has pulled out of the Republican contests to run as an Independent.
Karger will be on the ballot in a few other states: California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Puerto Rico
A survey by the Public Policy Poll on Feb. 26 found Romney winning all categories of voters in Arizona, even among evangelicals, whom Santorum’s ultra-conservative positions on social issues would seem to have secured. CNN exit polls in Arizona found Romney and Santorum essentially split the evangelical vote and Romney won the larger share of the Catholic vote, even though Santorum has played up his Catholicism during the campaign.
Support for Santorum began to falter almost as soon as he became a frontrunner with his surprise sweep of contests in three states two weeks ago. The spotlight on Santorum amplified his increasingly bizarre and radical statements. Among other things, Santorum said a baby conceived through rape should be seen as a “gift from God” and that President Kennedy’s speech in support of the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.” He called President Obama a “snob” for saying that he would like to see every person go to college or get some advanced instruction or training.
R. Clarke Cooper, head of the national Log Cabin Republicans, said he thinks Santorum’s rhetoric cost him support.
“Mitt Romney’s victories in Arizona and Michigan reflect a tightening in the field and rejection of Rick Santorum’s extreme views against gays, women and education,” said Cooper. “It remains unknown the actual delegate count from tonight, but any hopes by Santorum to take the race all the way to Tampa have been greatly diminished.”
Santorum’s self-inflicted wounds sent Romney’s numbers soaring in Arizona despite a late-hour scandal in the Romney campaign: Its Arizona co-chair, Paul Babeu, was outed as gay by an ex-boyfriend, a Mexican student who alleged that Babeu, a county sheriff, threatened to deport him after their relationship broke up and the ex-boyfriend threatened to out Babeu. The scandal expanded when Babeu’s sister drew attention to a report indicating Babeu had dated one of his male teenaged students when Babeu worked at a Massachusetts boarding school. He also allegedly disciplined students by forcing them to wear only a sheet. Babeu, who is running for Congress, acknowledged he was gay but denied any inappropriate behavior at the school. The student Babeu allegedly had a relationship with issued a statement denying that any such relationship took place.
The Los Angeles Times reported that, following the outing, Babeu was greeted quite warmly by his constituency but Babeu resigned as Romney’s co-chair. And the Public Policy Poll found that voter support for Babeu was fairly steady: 30 percent said they had a favorable view of Babeu and 24 percent had an unfavorable view; most (46 percent) were “unsure.”
Romney now leads the delegate race with 176 toward the 1,144 he needs to secure the nomination.
The next primary contest comes March 3 with a caucus in Washington State. It is followed by a 10-state “Super Tuesday” on March 6, involving contests in Ohio, Georgia, Massachusetts, Virginia, and six other states.