University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato tells Newsmax.TV that Mitt Romney may have picked up some additional momentum from this week’s debate, but his appeal with voters is hampered by a John McCain hangover of sorts.
“Frankly John McCain is the reason why the base is so unaccepting of that argument that it’s important to nominate Romney because he can win in November,” Sabato said in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
“That’s exactly what the party establishment told the base in 2008 about John McCain: He was the person to nominate because he was the one who could win the swing independents in November and win the election. And of course, we all know he lost by a decisive margin,” Sabato said.
This time around the GOP nominee will have one big advantage that the 2008 Republican nominee never had.
“President Obama is now an incumbent and has a four-year record and the base feels very strongly that Obama should not have a second term,” Sabato added.
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With two key contests next week in Romney’s home state of Michigan and McCain’s home state of Arizona, Romney’s real advantage lies with early and absentee voting.
“He’s also the only candidate with the organization needed to get lots of early and absentee votes in,” Sabato said. “He’s done it in both Michigan and Arizona.”
Sabato said that voter surveys show Romney with a “long lead” over former Pennsylvania Rick Santorum among early voters.
“He’s banked a lot of votes before election day so that even if Santorum wins on election day, his margin can be overcome by the early Romney votes,” Sabato explained.
A political science professor, author, and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, Sabato dismissed arguments that Santorum would be unable to beat President Obama in the general election.
“Anybody who would project a November election in February is not an honest analyst,” he said. “There are too many things that can happen, particularly to the economy. Will Europe go into a recession and drag us down? Will gas prices go so high that we tip back into a recession or slow economic growth to an absolute minimum?”
With respect to Obama’s failed energy policies that have caused misery at the gas pumps for so many Americans, Sabato said that the GOP candidates missed an opportunity in what will be not only the last debate prior to Tuesday’s elections, but also the 10 contests that make up Super Tuesday on March 6.
“Regardless of the questions, the candidates could have brought up gas prices,” he said. “They would have scored big on that particular point. And the eventual nominee will almost certainly use gas prices for many, many months in attacking the Obama administration. And they will do so with the fact it does matter.”
Sabato, who is also the founder of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online newsletter providing free political analysis, added that the $4 per gallon mark for gasoline will be a significant milestone for voters.
“It’s already obvious that the $4 a gallon mark is going to be significant and there will be some places in the country with $5 a gallon gasoline,” he said.
“Believe me, we’ll not only hear a lot about it, we’ll get daily updates as to what the gas price really is in certain localities so it’s going to be front and center in the campaign for as long as those high gas prices last.”
While Texas Rep. Ron Paul garnered attention by labeling Santorum a “fake,” he also appeared to synchronize his attacks against Santorum with Romney in the last debate, according to Sabato.
“To me, the more important part of that Paul aspect of the debate was how he’s working almost hand in glove with Mitt Romney,” Sabato said. “That is a very strange alliance this Romney/Paul partnership and Paul seems to take up where Romney leaves off in attacking Rick Santorum.”
Overall, Sabato said that Romney outperformed the other candidates. That was particularly so with Santorum, who spent much of the evening defending his record on topics that did not resonate well with the audience.
“Romney didn’t make that mistake. He was pointed. He needled Santorum constantly during that debate. He got rises out of Santorum over and over again,” said Sabato. “It’s very clear that Romney won that debate and that probably will help him next Tuesday in both Michigan and Arizona.”
He said that Santorum also missed an opportunity to counter Romney’s attack with respect to Santorum’s support for former fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who went on to cast the deciding vote for Obamacare in the Senate.
Romney, it could have been pointed out, voted for Sen. Paul Tsongas, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts in the 1992 presidential primary race at the expense of voting in the Republican primary for President George H.W. Bush.
“It was a surprise to me. It was a surprise to most debate observers that Santorum forgot to raise that and I think it was another mistake by Sen. Santorum in that debate,” Sabato explained.
CNN, which hosted the last debate in Mesa, Arizona, allowed much of the focus to be on social issues rather than economic and other issues that might have been more central to voters, including the botched Fast and Furious gun-smuggling operation, which took place partly in Arizona, according to Sabato.
“Everyone was expecting a question on Fast and Furious and on my Twitter feed I have easily several dozen comments by people in advance arguing for a question about Fast and Furious,” Sabato acknowledged. “Also there were relatively few questions on the economy. Mitt Romney, for example, had planned to present his economic program. He never got the opportunity to do so.”
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