A nip-and-tuck, up-and-down race has narrowed the pool of Republican presidential prospects to four men.
The stakes have been raised for both President Barack Obama and his aspiring GOP challengers. The President’s approval ratings have leveled off since his inauguration, amid sluggish economic recovery and a volative political climate.
The fate of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, long considered the GOP frontrunner, became less certain on Saturday after former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s sweeping victory in the South Carolina primary.
Both Romney and Gingrich enjoy a comparative advantage over former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who was recently declared the Iowa Caucus winner, a title that had been prematurely given to Romney.
Texas U.S. Representative Ron Paul has yet to win a primary, but has been the preferred candidate among Republican voters under 30 in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Once a libertarian presidential candidate, Paul’s support of marijuana legalization and an expedited troop withdrawal from the Middle East differ from the other GOP candidates.
Many libertarians support cuts to the military and favor a hands-off policy approach to social issues like gay rights and abortion, putting them at odds with other likely GOP voters.
If his popularity among politically-inclined 20-somethings were the sole indicator of his success, Paul would be leagues ahead of his rivals.
Paul is well-received at college campus visits in nearly every state he goes, and has fared well above his opponents in precincts located near university campuses.
Brodie Sharp, who chairs Students for Liberty, a libertarian group at UMKC, is among those supporting Paul.
“He has been the most consistent and principled politician in a while,” Sharp said. “He fully supports non-interventionist policies abroad, ending all domestic and foreign wars and significantly minimizing government here at home.”
Sharp said he has been unpleased with Obama’s performance in areas of both domestic and foreign policy, including the continued use of drones in the Middle East and failure to close Guantanamo Bay.
To Sharp, the other candidates are “Bush’s third term.”
Romney has also fielded doubts about his conservative credentials.
His health care overhaul as Massachusetts governor contained an individual mandate to purchase insurance and other provisions similar to Obama’s, and Romney once supported abortion rights.
Courting the GOP base, Romney has rhetorically distanced himself from his past as a moderate, but the change in tone hasn’t resonated well with his rivals.
A barrage of television ads by pro-Gingrich Super PACs likened Romney to Obama in the weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary.
The former Massachusetts governor’s Mormon faith and tenure at Bain Capital, an investment firm founded by Romney, have also come under attack. A pro-Gingrich ad called Romney a “corporate raider.”
Although two-thirds of South Carolina voters viewed Romney’s tenure at Bain positively, the growing media inquiry could be a potential game-changer amid sluggish economic recovery.
CNN exit polls from all three states show a lukewarm reception among Evangelical Christians, a key GOP voting block.
Gingrich’s 14-percentage point lead over Romney in South Carolina shows a rebound in his campaign, which failed to pick up momentum in Iowa or New Hampshire.
On the other hand, Santorum, faces an uphill battle after trailing second-place Romney by a whopping 10 percent.
However, he remained a favorite among social conservatives in the South Carolina exit poll who said banning abortion was their number one priority.
All four candidates have come out in opposition to abortion and Obama’s health care overhaul, and all believe that the federal budget should be balanced solely with massive spending cuts while avoiding tax increases for the wealthy.
Among independent and swing voters, who decide the fate of most presidential elections, Romney remains the preferred candidate in opinion polls.
Andrew Miller, Executive Director for UMKC College Democrats, said infighting between Republican candidates is an advantage for Obama.
“The further these people run to the right, that’s the further they have to run back to the center for the general election,” Miller said. “They see who can say the most right wing thing, and the further they go, they have to bring that back to the center for the general election.”
Miller said he considers Romney the primary threat to Obama’s re-election, but believes many consider the millionaire out of touch with the middle class.
“I think we’re going to be just fine with Mitt Romney,” Miller said. “I think he contrasts Obama very well and has the persona of the rich guy who’s out of touch with America.”
Regardless of whether the nominee is Romney, Gingrich, Santorum or Paul, it won’t be without controversy:
- Paul’s support of dismantling the Federal Reserve and deregulating the production of money, which Sharp and other libertarians support, is considered outside the mainstream.
- Santorum’s social conservatism, which appeals to evangelical Christians, has been criticized as homophobic. Santorum supports reinstated the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on openly gay service, which was repealed by Obama.
- Miller described Santorum’s views as “scary.”
- Gingrich, who also supports reinstating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, has come under fire for calling child labor laws “stupid.”