WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's methodical accumulation of Republican delegates is no thing of beauty, and the public is reacting in kind. The 2012 presidential race thus far is drawing rather tepid interest despite high stakes that include pivotal decisions about the weak economy and the fate of President Barack Obama's massive healthcare overhaul.
Generally speaking, voter turnout, political fundraising and public curiosity are down compared with four years ago, when John McCain pulled away from Romney and others to secure the GOP nomination.
Among Democrats, there's no primary drama after a 2008 thriller that saw Obama battle Hillary Clinton through the winter, spring, and summer. But even with the power of incumbency and fierce resistance from congressional Republicans, Obama isn't raising the kind of money he did in early 2008, when his nomination and election were far from certain.
The uninspiring nature of this year's presidential race stands in contrast to the political fireworks of Congress and several industrial states. The tea party's rapid rise has turned the House into a cauldron of partisan ferment, with repeated showdowns over issues such as paying the government's debts. GOP governors in Wisconsin and Ohio are confronting public rebukes after they aggressively challenged public-sector unions.
It's entirely possible that the presidential campaign will catch fire once a Republican nominee emerges and taps into widespread unease about Obama's handling of the economy. After comfortably winning the Illinois primary Tuesday, Romney increasingly looks like that candidate.
But the former Massachusetts governor has yet to shut down Rick Santorum and two other contenders who vow to fight to the late August GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. The result is a sense of lull between the upcoming general election and the not-so-distant departure of colorful characters such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain.
"Folks are frustrated over the inability of the race to develop into a contrast with the president and his policies rather than the trench warfare that has the GOP primary bogged down," said GOP strategist Brian Nick. "There is a frustration that it's time to move on to the next phase."
Polling by the Pew Research Center found that "overall public interest is comparable to most previous primary election cycles, but well below the high mark set four years ago."
In a recent Pew survey of adults, 23 percent said they "did not follow news about the candidates at all closely last week, a number higher than similar points in previous campaigns going back to 1992."
Overall voter turnout for GOP primaries and caucuses is lower than it was in 2008 at this date. This year's Republican turnout has seen ebbs and flows. The early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina had fairly robust turnout. Comparatively low totals followed in Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, but stronger levels returned in Michigan and Ohio.
A March 2008 New York Times-CBS News poll found 41 percent of adults were "more enthusiastic" about that year's election than those in the past. A Times-CBS poll this month found only 29 percent "more enthusiastic" about the current contest.
Possible explanations abound. Romney struggles to connect with average Americans. He nonchalantly notes his friendships with owners of NASCAR and pro football teams, but he shows little interest in the sports themselves. He didn't fill out at a "March Madness" college basketball tournament bracket — a tradition for millions of Americans, including Obama, who unveiled his choices on national TV.
Romney has tried to focus on the economy and his claim to be an experienced job creator. But Santorum and Newt Gingrich refuse to concede, forcing Romney repeatedly to argue that he's the inevitable nominee.
It's hardly a call to arms, as Santorum is happy to note.
"It's pretty sad when all you have is to do math instead of trying to go out there and win it on substance and win it on what Americans want to hear about," Santorum said while campaigning recently in Puerto Rico.
Santorum has an edgier message, extoling social and religious conservatism. But he remains underfunded, and keeps losing ground. It leaves GOP activists waiting for a nominee in a contest that, for now at least, features little suspense, excitement or fun.
"There's not a lot of enthusiasm for the current candidates, given how much Republicans want to replace this president," said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide. "A lot of mainstream Republicans are sitting this race out or hoping that there will be a deadlocked convention that will result in an 'out of the box' nominee."
Possible alternatives, he said, include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Meanwhile, the Obama camp's fires aren't burning too fiercely either. His campaign said it raised about $45 million last month, below the nearly $57 million it raised in February 2008. Obama's January fundraising total also lagged behind that of January 2008.
Obama adviser David Axelrod says he worries about complacency among Democrats.
"People get seduced because they watch the spectacle on the other side and they say, 'How can anybody on that side win?'" Axelrod told MSNBC. "The truth is we need to prepare for a close contest."
Close it might be. Inspiring, exciting and uplifting are different matters.
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