WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Republicans, “Super Tuesday” will not be quite as super as it used to be.
In recent presidential campaigns, the wave of state contests on the same day in February or March has been a defining moment, often settling the Republican race. That will not happen this Tuesday, when 10 states hold Super Tuesday contests that could boost Mitt Romney as the clear front-runner but will not hand him the nomination.
Rule changes by Republican Party leaders have stretched out the 2012 nomination process, essentially ensuring it will continue at least into April, and possibly to June.
The idea behind the drawn-out schedule of contests, party officials say, was to energize volunteers, attract more voters and capture the type of excitement that surrounded the epic battle in the 2008 Democratic primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But now, with Republican candidates and their allies spending tens of millions of dollars to attack each other, there are signs the extended primary battle is alienating some voters and exposing Romney’s inability to excite conservatives.
Some key party figures warn that the new schedule could hurt the eventual Republican nominee’s ability to take on Obama in the November 6 election.
Extending the primary schedule “was the dumbest idea anybody ever had,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, told Fox News last week.
John Ryder disagrees.
The Memphis, Tennessee, lawyer and Republican National Committee member helped design this year’s race to kick off with a handful of contests in small states, followed by March contests that award Republican convention delegates according to how well each candidates finishes. The nominee ideally would seal his victory in a series of state contests in April in which the winner gets all the state’s delegates.
So far, things are largely working out as planned, Ryder said.
“It’s better to have a discussion about our issues, on our turf, on our terms,” Ryder said.
Saul Anuzis, another RNC member who helped draw up the new rules, said Romney had learned how to deal with attacks on his business career and the healthcare overhaul he implemented as Massachusetts governor, which are likely to persist if he wins the Republican nomination.
“Mitt Romney is becoming a better candidate because of this primary,” said Anuzis, a Romney supporter.
Like Christie, many outside observers are not so complimentary of the new schedule’s impact on the Republican Party or its candidates.
This year’s Republican contest is highlighting a sharp divide between the affluent, business-friendly voters who support Romney and the more conservative blue-collar voters who view him with suspicion, they said. Lately, those voters have been supporting former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
As Santorum has risen in the polls by appealing to the party’s most conservative voters, he has injected “culture war” issues into a race that party leaders had hoped to focus on jobs and the economy.
Among other things, Santorum has criticized abortion rights, said that a 1960 speech in which President John F. Kennedy praised the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up,” and called Obama a “snob” for encouraging all American youths to go to college.
“It’s Mitt voters against the anti-Mitt voters. The longer that kind of fight goes on, the more negative it is,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report newsletter.
Terri Bimes, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said the drawn-out race was forcing Romney to cater to conservatives rather than court the independent voters who will decide the November election.
A long series of Republican debates has provided some insight into the candidates’ positions - and provided opportunities for high-profile gaffes. In a December debate, for example, Romney offered to bet then-candidate Rick Perry $10,000 to prove a point - an unintentional reminder of Romney’s vast wealth.
“Having the nomination season go on for so long is definitely not good for Mitt Romney or the Republican Party,” she said.
There are indications the campaign is not broadening the base as much as party leaders had hoped.
Voter turnout rose in the New Hampshire, South Carolina, Colorado, Iowa and Michigan contests compared with 2008, but fell in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada and Missouri.
National polls show tepid enthusiasm for the Republican candidates among voters at large. The most recent Gallup poll put favorability ratings for Romney and Paul at 39 percent, Santorum at 38 percent and Gingrich at 26 percent.
The Republican contenders are also less favorably positioned at this point than the eventual Republican nominees in earlier contests.
John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee, had a 56 percent favorable rating in February 2008, while George W. Bush had a 58 percent favorable rating in 2000 and Bob Dole had a 49 percent favorable rating in 1996, according to Gallup.
All three of those candidates had wrapped up the party’s nomination in March.
Outside money has also weakened the party’s influence on the process.
In past elections, losing candidates would quickly see their fundraising efforts dry up. This year, wealthy donors have kept candidates such as Gingrich afloat by giving millions of dollars to Super PACs, independent groups that can raise unlimited amounts to spend on supporting - or attacking - a candidate or cause.
Republican officials expect wealthy donors will not want to harm the party by backing losing candidates indefinitely.
“Sheldon Adelson is a practical guy, too,” Anuzis said, referring to the Las Vegas casino mogul whose family has donated at least $11 million to a pro-Gingrich Super PAC.
Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney