Mitt Romney’s primary problem

Mitt Romney is seizing the right kind of momentum at the wrong kind of time. 

Over the past month, the former governor of Massachusetts has seen a dramatic rise in general-election match-ups with President Obama, even as he continues to underwhelm in GOP primary polls.

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That might be explained partially by Obama’s falling approval numbers, but not entirely. If Romney’s rise were merely a function of Obama’s fall, then the president’s other potential GOP opponents would be seeing a similar rise. But they’re not.

And while some might discount polls so early in the process, they are beginning to tell an important story — one with lasting implications.

Romney’s gains have come both at the state and national level, and include such key battlegrounds as Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania — three states Obama won in 2008.

Two recent polls in Florida show Romney vaulting ahead of Obama by a small margin, but one that could lead to a significant impact. 

A Suffolk University poll has him edging the president by 1 percent, while all other potential GOP contenders come up short. Meanwhile, a Mason-Dixon poll shows Romney with an even more impressive 5 percent lead over Obama. 

His prospects in the state’s primary also seem bright. In both polls, he led all prospective Republican contenders. Some have claimed polling at this stage is merely a name-ID contest. But if it were a function of name identification only, neither former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin nor real estate mogul Donald Trump would be losing to him in the Sunshine State by 25 percent each, as they’re currently doing, according to the Suffolk poll.

Pennsylvania is another state that looms large in the 2008 calculus. Obama won the state by 10 percent in 2008, and a loss there would be a major blow to his reelection chances. Yet a Public Policy Polling survey earlier this month showed Romney edging the president by 1 percent in Pennsylvania.

Moving from the Midwest to the Northeast, you’ll find New Hampshire, which is likely the only Northeastern state in which Republicans have a shot.

Last week, a Dartmouth College Survey showed Romney surging to an 8 percent lead over Obama in that state, even as the president roundly defeated his other potential GOP rivals. While Romney was breezing to a win, Palin was getting trounced by 27 percent, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — his next closest competitor — by 8 percent. Obama won the state by nearly double digits in 2008, so a loss here would represent a third big defection to the Romney column.

Some might argue that Romney’s good showing comes thanks to the fact he governed neighboring Massachusetts. But that wasn’t good enough to win New Hampshire’s primary in 2008, which means his standing there can’t just be explained by geographic proximity. 

And it’s not just at the state level that Romney is seeing gains. In a Marist poll this month, he was deadlocked with Obama, 46 percent to 45 percent. He led by 3 percent among all-important independents, and siphoned off 13 percent of the Democratic vote.

So it’s been a great month for Romney, right?

Not totally.

The wrinkle to all this is that he continues to struggle living up to his front-runner status in the GOP primary, even as he makes gains in the general-election match-ups.

A recent Gallup poll had him placing third in the 2012 GOP primary, behind Huckabee and — of all people — Trump. 

A Public Policy Polling survey also had him slipping to third behind Trump and Huckabee, with the former sporting a 9 percent lead over him. It’s nearly impossible to argue that Trump is actually ahead of Romney or more likely to win the nomination, but it’s still a troubling number for Romney.

These polls suggest we’re seeing the first hard numbers backing up a point pundits have been making for some time — that Romney might have a tougher time winning the GOP primary than the general election. 

The reason for that? As always, Romney’s troubles come down to his healthcare program in Massachusetts, which Fox’s Brit Hume described as the “millstone around his neck” because of its similarities to Obama’s.

According to Rasmussen Reports, 53 percent of likely voters favor some sort of repeal of the president’s healthcare program, with many more Republicans disapproving than Democrats and independents. 

That, then, would explain why talk of “RomneyCare,” which is what his critics call Massachusetts’s healthcare program, hurts more at the primary, not general-election, level, and would explain the phenomenon we’ve seen with his numbers the past few months.

Running against an incumbent president might be hard, but for Romney, running against his own party is even harder.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.