Rupert Cornwell: The Romney dog-food brand still isn't selling

Out of America: The Republican frontrunner can't seem to win over the party faithful

Related Topics

For sheer craziness, few events on the American political calendar beat the annual gathering in a cavernous Washington hotel each February of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Republicans with the slightest instinct for compromise need not apply. A CPAC is part political trade fair, part motivational course for tomorrow's right-wing true believers, and not least an opportunity for the further fringes of the party to vent their innermost prejudices.

And in the past these conferences have featured some strange stars. In 1994, CPAC was where Paula Jones first went public with her allegations of sexual harassment against then President Bill Clinton. But the CPAC that wrapped up here last night was different. For once, it may have really mattered.

For that, thank the calendar of this extraordinary Republican presidential race. This time last week, Mitt Romney, fresh from convincing wins in Florida and Nevada, looked to have the nomination in the bag. Then came Rick Santorum's sweep in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota – meaning that the frontrunner had actually lost five of the first eight primaries and caucuses, four of them to Santorum and one to Newt Gingrich. And so to CPAC, at which all three made their pitches.

In truth, the Santorum hat-trick was less than met the eye. In Colorado and Minnesota, turnouts were derisory. In the latter's caucuses fewer than 49,000 took part – equivalent to 4 per cent of the votes cast in the state for Republican candidate John McCain in November 2008. Those who did take part were not the committed, but the ultra-committed. That vote proved not so much the popularity of Santorum (although he is a nice enough fellow) but the continuing refusal of the base to embrace Romney.

Now the latter is still favourite, at least as long as Messrs Santorum and Gingrich continue to split the conservative vote. In Missouri, the former House speaker was not on the ballot and Santorum won an outright majority of 55 per cent. There's no sign of it happening, but if either was to drop out, then Romney would be in dire trouble.

Even so, rarely has a frontrunner been less convincing. Romney's problem is that of the boss of the dog food company of legend, bewildered why his product won't sell despite having the best ingredients and an unmatched marketing operation. A minion finally pipes up: "But dogs don't like it."

For dogs, read the evangelical and social activists who remain suspicious of a candidate branded by his successful governorship of liberal and sinful Massachusetts. To them, Romney seems a fraud, all things to all men, without a political fibre in his body beyond an inflexible desire to win the White House. Perhaps these unhappy beasts will know what's best for them, and dutifully swallow the dog food. But perhaps not. CPAC was a chance for Romney to win over true conservatives, live on television.

He did his best. He declared himself not just conservative, but "severely conservative". He vowed to repeal Barack Obama's healthcare reform. He proclaimed the dawn of a new conservative era. He touted his record of having never served a day in Washington, the fount of government and therefore of all evil. But for all the hollering of the Romney faithful in the hall, you couldn't be sure.

An hour earlier Santorum had been introduced by his key financial backer, the investor Foster Friess. "A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into a bar," Friess joked. "The bartender said, 'Hi Mitt!'" Santorum is a mint-certified social conservative, to whom abortion and gay marriage are anathema. Whatever he lacks, it isn't authenticity. He spoke for barely 15 minutes. But the welcoming ovation he received sounded more sincere.

Santorum questioned his opponent's supposedly greater electability, one of the main selling points of Romney-brand dog food. "Why," he asked, "would an undecided voter vote for a candidate the party's not excited about?" And, he urged: "Walk out of this gathering and choose the person who makes you say, 'I have done my duty, I have kept my honour.'"

Did Romney persuade the doubters? One indicator was yesterday's Maine caucuses. Romney only just beat – by 39 per cent to 36 per cent – Ron Paul, his only rival to campaign here. Earlier, he edged Santorum in a CPAC straw poll by 38 per cent to 31. Far more important will be the primaries in Arizona and Michigan at the end of February. A defeat in his birth state of Michigan would be devastating, but cannot be ruled out. And if the frontrunner were to lose there, the desperation in the Republican establishment truly would be something to behold.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established managed services IT...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bahrainis on an anti-government protest in May  

Hussain Jawad's detainment and torture highlights Britain's shameless stance on Bahraini rights

Emanuel Stoakes
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

This election demonises the weakest

Stefano Hatfield
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003