Editorial: Post-Santorum, a new Romney?

  • Updated: April 10, 2012 - 10:50 PM

Presumptive GOP nominee has ample time to redefine himself.

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney

Photo: Steven Senne, Associated Press

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The inevitable news that Mitt Romney now has a clear path to the Republican presidential nomination is worth celebrating. Not so much because Romney has earned the nod with fresh ideas and courage of conviction, but because his opponents have been so weak.

The further he fell behind, the more Rick Santorum played to what now appears to be the GOP base. A Santorum campaign that began with a focus on jobs and the economy devolved into a rally for the Tea Party and social conservatives. He will not be missed.

Santorum had become a walking-dead distraction, with little hope of winning but an uncanny ability to draw attention to the differences between the Republican far right and farther right. His candidacy was valuable only because it laid bare the reality that the Republican Party circa 2012 is no monolith, and that its far-right faction is wedded to notions that differ markedly from American majority thought.

Santorum, a Catholic, almost always failed to win the Catholic vote in the GOP primaries. Instead, his support came from evangelical Christians, particularly in the South. Catholic Republicans, on the other hand, favored the more reasonable Romney.

As he grew increasingly desperate, Santorum sounded more like a Michele Bachmann greatest hits CD than a serious candidate for the presidency. He was prone to making jaw-dropping pronouncements -- ridiculing scientific observations on global warming, supporting the outlawing of contraception, questioning the value of higher education, and faulting President John Kennedy's defense of separation of church and state.

It's time for the electorate -- and the news media -- to shift to the larger questions that need answering in the general election. The nation deserves to hear nominee-apparent Romney contrast himself with President Obama, not with a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was resoundingly ousted from office in 2006.

Repeatedly in recent weeks, Romney has tried to turn his campaign's narrative toward the general election, only to have Santorum's sideshow pull him back to themes that appeal more to GOP primary voters than to the nation as a whole.

Watching Romney respond was revealing. Seldom did he offer full-throated criticism of Santorum, though he had to know that failing to do so would hurt him among many general-election voters, especially women. Ahead in the polls and delegate count for months, Romney didn't need to be so cautious. His meekness suggests an exaggerated fear of his own right flank and a troubling lack of confidence in his own ideas.

Starting today, Romney really does have an Etch-a-Sketch opportunity to redefine himself after a primary campaign in which he took great pains to be undefinable. We suggest a return to the fundamentals, with an emphasis on what should be a Romney strength -- the economy.

He'll also need to provide more clarity on his new health care agenda, given that he has rejected his own greatest legislative achievement -- successful reform in Massachusetts. And, most critically, he'll need to be believable.

There's plenty of time on the campaign clock for Romney, presuming he can be heard above the din of the super PACs unleashed by Citizens United. His general-election opponent provides a case study.

In April 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama was still trying to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as well as from Hillary Clinton, who stayed in the race until June. We know how things worked out for him.

When the GOP nominates this summer, the party will have come back, as it should, to the candidate who most appeals to the center-right. With his sights now squarely set on Obama, the presumptive nominee has a chance to rally the more moderate factions within the GOP in advance of the convention and the fall campaign.

It was high time the fringe-friendly, intraparty phase of this year's presidential race came to an end. The American people -- especially those in the center who need to find their own voice in this campaign -- deserve a more substantive debate in the months ahead.

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