The contentious presidential primary, in its ninth week, won’t permanently damage the eventual nominee when the fall election arrives, the chairman of the Republican National Committee said on Monday.
In fact, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told the Tribune-Review that a longer primary process might benefit the party by boosting people’s enthusiasm and drawing them to polls.
"A primary fight with a little bit of drama is the best thing that can happen to us," Priebus said. "The times we have fallen in line and just picked someone early haven’t really worked out well for us."
In addition to toughening the candidate who will take on the Democratic machine, he said, "every one of our primaries has yielded new volunteers, new voters and another universe of people who are looking for someone besides Barack Obama as the president. That is all the better for us."
The candidates’ rhetoric can give the appearance that the party lacks unity. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum continued to suggest that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich should bow out of the race and give Santorum a better chance to win votes from the front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney has said he always planned to campaign competitively.
In Gulfport, Miss., Wayne Tisdale, 61, eschews the conventional wisdom that "good old-fashioned rivalry" between candidates indicates lack of unity and threatens the GOP’s chances of winning in November.
"Quite frankly, I think that the competition is good for the party," said Tisdale, a businessman and evangelical elder who will be among voters casting ballots today.
"Look, to prove you are the best in the game, you have to take some punches," said Tisdale, who intends to vote for Romney.
Alabama also holds its primary today. Pre-election polling showed Santorum, Gingrich and Romney splitting the vote in the two Southern states, with Texas Congressman Ron Paul lagging behind.
"As fresh as it is today, by the fall it will all be forgotten," Tisdale said.
Priebus agreed with that assessment, pointing to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday that appeared to underscore the GOP’s chances for victory. The national telephone survey of 1,003 registered voters, taken March 7-10, showed Romney leading Obama 49 percent to 47 percent, and leading Santorum 49 percent to 46 percent. The poll, with a 4 percentage-point sampling error, showed 50 percent disapproved of Obama’s job performance; disapproval among key independent voters spiked to 57 percent.
"As far as a prolonged fight ruining our chances in November, well, I would point to recent polling that shows otherwise," said Priebus, who noted that the poll found the high price of gasoline largely contributed to people’s discontent.
The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline jumped nearly a nickel over the weekend to $3.80, according to the Oil Price Information Service.
Republican leaders changed party rules after the 2008 election to prolong the primary season to better vet the candidates. Democrats use a similar extended system.
Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University, said she’s not surprised that "the Republicans are faring well, despite the constant complaint by the media that this (primary process) is hurting them."
Americans still have no confidence in Obama’s management of the economy, Brown said.
"Rising gas prices isn’t just about filling up your car," she said. "It is that sticker shock when you go to buy a gallon of milk and you realize that even the simple things in life are impacted."
A political party suffers, she said, when someone challenges an incumbent president in a primary — such as the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 race against President Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge of President George H.W. Bush.
"That shows deep fractures within the party," she said, noting that both presidents won the primaries but lost in general elections. "Those were ideological fractures within the parties. I tend to think this contest is more a personal tiff than a deep fracture."
Statistics favor Romney as the only candidate capable of amassing the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination. Though Santorum won Saturday’s caucus in Kansas, Romney won contests in Wyoming, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. The Associated Press estimates Romney with 454 delegates; Santorum with 217; Gingrich, 107; and Paul, 47.
Experts predict Romney will win in Puerto Rico on Sunday, where the governor endorsed him, and Illinois on March 20, where his organization trumps those of his rivals.
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