In his presidential run, Richard Nixon employed "the Southern Strategy," an effort to move Southern voters—traditionally Democrats—into the ranks of the Republican Party. Wielding the controversial issue of civil rights, and the clever coding of "states' rights," Nixon and other conservatives succeeded, and over the decades since, the South has deepened its loyalty to the Republican Party. One could argue that that GOP at times seems increasingly like a regional party—and without the South, it would be a weak party.
Is this a problem or an opportunity for Mitt Romney, long considered the Republican front-runner, who cannot find strong support among these most passionate GOP voters? In last night's primaries, Rick Santorum's victories, slim as they were, showed that his campaign has stamina, and reminded everyone watching, especially the strategists for both camps, that Romney needs a Southern Strategy of his own.
For Romney, the problem is that Republican voters don't particularly like him. Whether it's his inconsistent conservatism, his Massachusetts credentials, or his Mormon faith—or likely some combination—he looks a lot less inevitable when judged by those most passionate primary participants. These are the same Republicans who the eventual nominee will rely on in states that must go red for any GOP hope. If they dislike Romney now, will they hang back in November?
So the Romney camp keeps searching for a way to prove he's "severely conservative"—but it looks desperate. And compared to a man who willingly picks culture wars from a half-decade ago, Romney will never look conservative enough no matter how far to the right he runs.
Maybe instead of a problem, though, Team Mitt should view this as an opportunity: to grab the center now and secure firmer standing against President Obama in the fall. Every time he loses a Southern state, his spin doctors should make sure nobody thinks it's because he's Mormon; rather, it's because he's too reasonable, he governed through compromise, and he is willing to buck extreme ideology for the sake of his truest belief: pragmatic results.
There are Democrats and independents who probably already suspect that about Romney. And while losing state after state to Santorum may make his road to the nomination harder, it ironically makes him more appealing nationally.
At this point, it should be clear to him that he's not going to win those Deep Red States. His path to the convention is going to travel through the coasts and the mountainous West. Those are areas President Obama is depending on; and if they give Romney a second look, that's the only real cause for concern among Democrats.
In November, those same Southern states that are rejecting Romney now will likely embrace whoever is the Republican nominee. They don't have much of a choice. The Southern Strategy worked too well, made them too integral to the Republican machinery, and nobody imagines them wavering. As unenthusiastic as they may be toward Romney, they have deeper misgivings about Obama.
If he can't win them now, but can count on them in November; if appealing to them in the primaries makes him less palatable to true swing states; if he can get the delegates and momentum in areas where a pragmatic businessman trumps a religious fanatic—then Romney's best Southern Strategy might be no strategy for the South at all.