PHILADELPHIA, PA — If, as political consultant James Carville once famously remarked, Pennsylvania “is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between,” then Mitt Romney could be in trouble.
Romney is not liked or trusted by the liberal majorities in the big cities, which also have large African-American populations that overwhelmingly support President Barack Obama.
But neither does he appeal to the socially conservative heartland, where the first day of hunting season is a school holiday, and where people “cling to guns or religion,” in the words of then-candidate Obama in 2008.
At least, this is the message I got from a group of registered Republicans with whom I had dinner the other night. None of them — not the oil executive, nor the small business owners, nor the woman who works with horses — were planning on voting for Romney.
“There is just nothing to like about the man,” grumbled Tara, the horsewoman.
Five states will vote today: Connecticut, New York, Delaware and Rhode Island, as well as Pennsylvania, with, in all, 231 delegates at stake.
The presumptive nominee is almost sure to pick up most or all of Pennsylvania’s 72 delegates, nudging him ever closer to the magic number — 1,144 delegates needed for unassailable nomination at the Republican convention in Tampa this summer.
More from Highway 2012: Rhode Island goes to the polls, maybe
Pennsylvania, like New York, is a “winner-take-all” primary, provided a candidate clears 50 percent of the popular vote.
This should not be an insurmountable hurdle for Romney. He is, after all, the only one really running.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claims to be in the race to contribute to the conservative debate, but perhaps a more likely reason he has not yet dropped out is his increasingly desperate search for funds to liquidate his staggering campaign debt. The more delegates he picks up, the better his position as he hunts for sponsors. Gingrich has concentrated on tiny Delaware, which is also winner-take-all, with 17 delegates up for grabs — he may pick up a few more bargaining chips today.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul has not campaigned heavily in Pennsylvania, where he has little hope of triumph. But he continues to deliver his libertarian message via television ad buys in Rhode Island, hoping for a bigger say at the convention. Paul, unlike Gingrich, has not run an aggressive campaign and is not in debt.
Rick Santorum is still on the ballot, but he suspended his campaign two weeks ago. According to Will, the oil executive, this is because the former Pennsylvania senator knew he had little hope of wining in his home state.
“Voters hated him,” he said over coconut shrimp at a popular Italian restaurant about an hour outside of Philadelphia. “They rejected him overwhelmingly in 2006 and they would have crushed him this time around.”
The dinner was a strange but illuminating experience. With four Republicans at the table, I had expected the conversation to be a bit more oriented towards conservative issues. Instead, as the wine flowed and tongues loosened, it became a diatribe against the Republican Party, and a speculation on what would happen in the fall.
More from Highway 2012: Is Santorum running a shadow campaign?
The major disagreement among my friends was the margin by which Obama would beat Romney in November. Will thinks the president will win in a landslide; the others are afraid it might be quite a bit closer.
“I hate what has happened to the Republicans,” said Will, who works in Pittsburgh as a consultant for the oil industry. “They have taken intractable positions and are intent on blocking anything from being done. I will not support them; I voted for Obama in 2008, and I will do so again.”
According to Will, the president is not wildly popular among his clients; big oil is invested too heavily in the Republican Party. But Obama, he says, is not the nightmare for oil that he is being made out to be. He simply is asking for responsibility, said Will, and neither big oil nor the Republicans are inclined to part with their power and profits.
“They want it all,” he said. “They will not compromise, they are not realistic. The Republican Party will disappear if this keeps up.”
Tara, his wife, agrees.
“We are still Republican,” she said. “We believe in smaller government and fiscal conservatism. But I do not agree with the Republican Party on social issues. Why do they want the government to keep out of our lives, except for our bedrooms?”
Tara, like the other two at table, a gay couple who operate a gardening business, was incensed by Santorum’s attempts to bring contraception and abortion rights front and center during the campaign.
More from Highway 2012: Adventures in La La Land (or Chester County, Pennsylvania)
“With the economy the way it is, no one really cares about those issues,” she fumed. “Why try and divert attention from what really matters?”
Martin, the florist, also had sharp words for the former Pennsylvania senator. “You can imagine how we feel,” he said, looking at Steve, his partner.
Santorum made no secret of his opposition to gay marriage, and his aversion to homosexuality in general. Martin referred with glee to the campaign against Santorum in 2003 that produced a quasi-obscene definition of the man’s name, which is still widely cited in gay circles.
Although Pennsylvania is classified as a swing state, it has gone for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1992. Most polls give Obama an edge over Romney in the general election.
On Monday, just one day before the vote, Romney was on the stump in Pennsylvania with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is widely rumored to be a favorite for the vice president slot.
Romney may hope that the Cuban-American Rubio will help narrow Obama’s 40-point lead among Hispanic voters.
Neither man was willing to commit on the issue, though. Romney said that the vetting process for VP candidates was still in the early stages, while Rubio simply said, “I’m not talking about that process anymore.”
Rubio may be right to keep silent on the topic, after a gaffe in an interview with the National Journal, in which he said, "Three, four, five, seven years from now, if I do a good job as vice president — I'm sorry, as senator — I'll have the chance to do all sorts of things."
But for now, Rubio insists he is out of the VP sweepstakes.
This could be bad news for the Romney campaign; judging by my dinner companions, the Republican candidate will need all the help he can get.