Despite a tempestuous fortnight for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a mixed bag of recent poll results, most Pennsylvania party leaders remain confident he can still beat President Barack Obama in November.
State GOP county chairs, fundraisers and activists acknowledge that Romney’s campaign endured a tortuous two weeks following August’s Republican National Convention, but maintain that he’s well-positioned to finish in the winners circle.
“The level of enthusiasm has not dropped off in recent days or weeks,” said Dauphin County GOP Chairman Josh Wilson. “In fact it’s the opposite. Every time the news media kicks Mitt Romney, or criticizes Mitt Romney, our folks get more energized.”
That runs contrary to recent independent polling which indicates the former Massachusetts governor trails the president by an average of 8 points. A Franklin & Marshall College poll released today has Obama leading Romney by 9 points among likely voters and 11 points among registered voters.
But last week state Republicans pointed to an internal party poll that showed Romney within a point of Obama. The poll, conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research, calculated Obama’s Pennsylvania margin over Romney had shriveled to 48-47.
Many in the state GOP were lifted by the results and began pinning their hopes of a revived Romney campaign on a strong performance Tuesday at the first presidential debate.
“The debates will be the defining events of this campaign,” said Charlie Gerow, a prominent Harrisburg Republican consultant. “If Romney performs exceptionally well in the debates the whole field will shift.”
Former Gov. and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell shared a more partisan view of that same sentiment Monday, calling the first debate Romney’s “last best chance” to remain viable to establishments Republicans eager to usher Obama out of office.
“It will snowball rapidly because the Republican powers-that-be will give up the ship,” Rendell said during a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg.
If that happens, many conservatives will blame the way Romney’s routine campaign missteps have been portrayed in the left-of-center mainstream media.
“I feel good about where we are in Pennsylvania,” said state GOP Central Caucus Chairman Richard Stewart. “That would lead me to disregard what we’re reading in the media.”
Media reports have battered Romney for a nominating convention speech that neglected to reference U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, and for claiming Obama sympathized with the militants who killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya earlier this month on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The media backlash directed at Romney for panning a sitting president during a perceived national emergency prompted him to roll back his critique. But many Pennsylvania Republicans said he had the right idea.
“I don’t think Gov. Romney needed to apologize for anything,” said Cumberland County party Chairman John Gross. “I think what he said is exciting people. I wish Gov. Romney had said more.”
Romney withstood his most intense media thrashing last week for dismissing half of the nation’s voters as “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them” during remarks secretly recorded at a private fundraiser.
But rather than spur supporters to throw in the towel because of campaign blunders and frustrating poll results, Pennsylvania party leaders say the series of gaffes has emboldened the party faithful and hasn’t even hurt campaign contributions.
“Oddly enough it hasn’t,” said Christine Toretti, the Indiana County-based Republican National Committee finance committee co-chair. “People are more energized to step up.”
Still, seeing Romney stumble against a president considered abundantly beatable is causing some nervousness among many commonwealth conservatives.
“The conventional wisdom is that Obama is one of the most vulnerable presidents in modern history, and it’s frustrating because it seems like we can’t close the deal,” said Ryan Shafik, an area campaign consultant for conservative candidates. “But the grassroots conservative groups and activists are still motivated and working hard for Romney.”
And while steadfast support for Romney persists despite Romney not airing a single television ad in the state since April, party leaders maintain that the campaign has not forsaken Pennsylvania.
Influential Allegheny County GOP chairman Jim Roddey said recent poll trends may cause Romney to rely on carrying the commonwealth or a state no Republican has become president without winning.
“It’s beginning to look like he’ll have to win either Ohio or Pennsylvania, and I’m hopeful we can make that Pennsylvania,” Roddey said.
But not all state party leaders retain belief in Romney.
A prominent Pennsylvania GOP fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said last week — before the widespread distribution of the clandestine Romney recording — that the GOP nominee will lose Pennsylvania and the general election.
“Pennsylvania only goes Republican when it’s a national landslide, not when it’s a close race,” the party powerbroker said. “The Obama team is first class. They ran a brilliant campaign. That’s why they’re going to win. The Romney team is just not up to it. That’s why I do not think they will turn it around in the last six to eight weeks.”
Others prominent state Republicans remain hopeful of winning the White House, but were skeptical Romney could win Pennsylvania.
“What I’ve been saying to people is I don’t think Romney’s going to win Pennsylvania,” said former Cumberland County Republican Chairwoman Karen Best.
Roddey acknowledged the doubt within state party ranks, but said the Pennsylvania effort is far from over.
“Obviously I’ve got concerns because it’s close,” he said. “I think we can do it, but we can’t make anymore mistakes from here on out.”
Bob Asher, considered the most powerful behind-the-scenes Republican in Pennsylvania, also admitted hearing skepticism of Romney’s chances, but argued that the campaign is poised to make a strong play for Pennsylvania in the coming weeks.
Romney will fundraise in Philadelphia Friday, wife Ann may campaign in York and Altoona in early October, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will keynote Friday’s fall Republican State Committee dinner.
“If we were down in the dirt and done, he wouldn’t be coming,” Asher said of Jindal, a rising national GOP figure.
“Do I think [Romney] should change some things in the campaign? You’re damn right,” he said. “But everybody thinks that in every campaign.”
The following are highlights of the poll, which is produced in conjunction with The Patriot-News and other media organizations. Complete results can be found at politics.fandm.edu.
- Obama leads Romney, 50 percent to 39 percent, with 6 percent undecided among registered voters and a slightly smaller lead among likely voters, 52 percent to 43 percent, with 3 percent undecided.
- Bob Casey leads Tom Smith, 46 percent to 34 percent, with 14 percent undecided in the US Senate race. Among likely voters, Casey’s lead is smaller, 48 percent to 38 percent, with 8 percent undecided.
- Obama is seen as better able to handle foreign policy issues, 56 percent to 33 percent; better able to understand the concerns of ordinary Americans, 59 percent to 32 percent; better able to handle the job as military chief, 53 percent to 38 percent; closest to voters’ views on abortion and gay marriage, 48 percent to 39 percent; and more prepared to fix our economic problems, 47 percent to 43 percent.
- Obama is viewed favorably by 50 percent of respondents to Romney’s 34 percent, but Obama’s job performance rating is more negative, 47 percent, than positive, 52 percent).
- More voters still support the state’s voter ID law than oppose it, 59 percent to 39 percent.
- Almost half (49 percent) of voters think the next state attorney general should further review the way then Attorney General Tom Corbett investigated the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case.