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Santorum Drops Out of the Republican 2012 Race, But Only 29% of Voters Find Mitt Romney Inspiring

With former Senator Rick Santorum officially suspending his presidential campaign on Tuesday, all eyes will now be turning toward a coming showdown between presumptive GOP candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. 

As both campaigns begin to go on the offensive, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that both parties have some important ground to cover in the coming months. Here are five particular areas to keep an eye on:

1) President Obama’s approval rating could mean trouble. While the president currently enjoys an approval rating of right around 50%, that’s not necessarily on the high end of history. Campaigning is hard enough when you are not the one running the country, but it takes even more to be both a strong candidate and a strong leader. Still, if the president wants to keep the odds in his favor historically, he would do well to keep a close eye on that approval rating.

2) Mitt Romney needs to be more than a businessman. There is no doubt about it: Even if Romney wants to try and be “one of us,” we all know that the man got rich by doing good business.  Voters respond to this: He has a 4% point lead on the president when it comes to “handling the economy,” and an impressive 51-38 lead when it comes to “handling the federal budget deficit.” 

At the same time, he also hits lower on just about everything else: He trails Obama 49-39 on “protecting the middle class,” 53-36 on “handling international affairs,” and 53-34 on “handlingwomen’s issues.” While Romney has made some very small progress in the first two areas, the gap remains deeply troublesome for Republicans. Just about anything that is not strictly fiscal or economic puts Romney in a tough position when put up against President Obama.

On the other hand, this is just the beginning. Like all presidential elections, Romney still has to make the transition out of “primary mode.” Women’s issues – whatever they might be – were less of a focus in debates with a Rick Santorum or Ron Paul than they will be against Obama. That Romney is trailing on these issues does not necessarily point to a failing of his campaign strategy; it tells us where the big discussions are going to take place.

3) Romney comes off as unlikeable. Perhaps the most significant finding of the new poll is in the area of general likability and leadership. When asked which candidate “seemed like the most friendly and likeable person,” Romney trailed President Obama by a whopping 40 points. Granted, we all knew that Romney had a bit of an image problem, but this is a near-impossible gap to close. Perhaps even more worrisome for the GOP, voters also find Obama to be the more inspiring leader, 55 to 29 percent. In a time when 76% of Americans still believe the country to be in a recession, the ability to inspire voters is going to be huge.

Indeed, if Romney does not close the “likeability gap” – and it is hard to see how he could – then a lot of his strategy seems to bank on economic difficulties come election time. That’s certainly not something, however, that can be said explicitly.

4) Mormonism and personal wealth not an issue for Romney and GOP. In what seems like an almost contradictory statistic, 71% of voters called Romney’s personal wealth “not a major factor” in determining their support. This is striking because it would seem that Romney’s wealth often gives grounds for his “unlikeability” – most of his gaffes, for instance, have to do with that “1% mentality” people accuse him of having. Still, this should also come as a bit of a relief: Romney may feel like pressure to “justify” his wealth in front of the Left’s attacks.

Romney’s Mormonism, while hardly ever mentioned, seems to be generally outside of voter consideration as well. 80% of voters polled said it was “not a major factor” in their decision.

5) “Unfairness” beats out “Over-regulation” as major problem in the U.S. economy. Of the voters polled, 52% identified unfairness as a bigger problem for the country than over-regulation, which received only 37%. While the gap has narrowed slightly since the beginning of the year (55%-35%), it still stands quite strongly in opposition to the GOP. If Romney plans to make an effective appeal to voters, he will need to link economic unfairness to the failed regulatory strategies of the Left. If he can do this effectively and use it to bolster his economic credentials, he could put himself in a much stronger position for November.

If the election were held today, President Obama would likely defeat Mitt Romney will little difficulty. At the time of the polling, 51% of voters said that they would vote for the President, while only 43% put themselves behind Romney. If the GOP challenger hopes to close this gap by the time November comes around, he certainly has his work cut out for him. A process of steady moderation and courting of independent voters is sure to come, and we will probably see Romney weighing in a bit more on social policies before long. He will try to lay economic difficulties on Obama’s head and present himself as the savvy (but not out-of-touch) businessman who can turn the nation’s financial troubles around.

At the same time, Obama ought to be careful and ensure that his approval rating does not dip below the 50% mark. He should continue to hit Romney on social issues and pressure him with accusations of leaving the middle class behind. His Buffett Rule, despite being somewhat “politick-y,” is a good campaign move that should set the tone for his larger election strategy.

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