Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mitt Romney wins Wisconsin, Maryland, D.C. primaries

Herman Cain: Romney must pick VP who will ‘bring some excitement to the ticket’

By Dan Balz and Philip Rucker

WAUKESHA, Wis. — Mitt Romney captured presidential primaries in Maryland, the District and battleground Wisconsin, the biggest prize of the day, to complete a momentum-building, three-contest sweep Tuesday that cemented his status as the almost certain Republican nominee and put new pressure on rival Rick Santorum to reassess his candidacy.

With his campaign increasingly focused on President Obama and the general election, the former Massachusetts governor’s victories in Maryland and the District were never in doubt. He won both by crushing margins. In Wisconsin, where Romney and Santorum devoted most of their energies, the margin was narrower but nonetheless decisive.

With Tuesday’s primaries behind them, the candidates now look ahead to April 24, when Pennsylvania and four other states hold their primaries. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, can ill-afford to lose his home state and has keyed the future of his campaign to success there, a reality openly acknowledged by his advisers.

The urgency for Romney to pivot away from intraparty warfare toward the general election contest became even more apparent on Tuesday. On a day he formally clinched the Democratic nomination, Obama delivered a speech clearly designed to frame the fall choice. He sharply attacked the budget approved by House Republicans, calling it a “radical vision” and “thinly veiled Social Darwinism” that amounted to “a prescription for decline” in the country.

Romney Responds To Obama

On Tuesday night, Romney fired back, calling the president out of touch with the suffering in society and saying that on Obama’s watch America isn’t working.

“This campaign is going to deal with many complicated issues but there is a basic choice we’re going to face,” he said in his victory speech in Milwaukee. “The president has pledged to transform America and he has spent the last four years building a government-centered society. I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of an opportunity society led by free people and free enterprise.”

Already there is a rising chorus of party leaders urging that Republicans rally around Romney, while carefully avoiding direct calls for Santorum to get out. Party leaders fear that an extended contest that includes a continuation of the negative attacks that have been pervasive throughout the primaries will only weaken the party and its likely nominee for the fall.

Santorum runs the risk of either embarrassment, if he loses Pennsylvania, or becoming seen within his party as a spoiler if he stays in the race indefinitely and continues to attack Romney.

But on Tuesday night, he sounded a defiant note in his concession speech.

Saying the race was only at its halfway point, he vowed to keep campaigning and threatened to take his candidacy all the way to the GOP convention in Tampa. He laced his remarks, delivered in Pennsylvania, with criticisms of Romney, calling his rival a moderate who lacks true convictions.

“If we’re going to win this race we can’t have little differences between our nominee and President Obama,” he said. “We have to have clear contrasting colors.” He said people have gotten behind his candidacy “because they see someone who has a clear positive vision, someone whose convictions are also forged in steel, not on an Etch A Sketch.”

Romney Gets Endorsements

In the past two weeks, Romney has been endorsed by establishment leaders such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and by two favorites of the right and the tea party, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the author of the House budget plan. Ryan was at Romney’s side throughout the final days of campaigning in Wisconsin.

Romney was likely to win the overwhelming share of the 95 delegates at stake on Tuesday. That would still leave him well short of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination, but the latest haul would expand what already was a significant lead over Santorum and the other two remaining candidates, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Santorum was not even on the ballot in the District.

Tuesday’s contests were significant because they marked the first of two important days for Santorum’s candidacy-and what the Romney forces see as a critical three-week period that could effectively end a nomination battle that has lasted longer than many strategists had predicted when it began a few months ago.

Romney’s victory in Wisconsin was another major blow to Santorum. The former senator has had success in southern primaries but had lost Michigan, Ohio and Illinois to Romney in earlier contests and needed to demonstrate that he could expand his support beyond the narrow base that has backed his candidacy since he emerged as Romney’s main challenger.

Romney Favored To Win

Romney is favored to win all the other states except Pennsylvania with contests on April 24-New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island. Santorum hopes that a victory in Pennsylvania will give him the legitimacy and the political lift to keep going into May, despite his underdog status. A poll released Tuesday showed Santorum leading in Pennsylvania by six points, but that margin is narrower than some earlier polls showed.

For many of the reasons the contests this month tend to favor Romney, the calendar in May is far more hospitable to Santorum. The May contests include primaries in North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas, states that have a significant number of evangelical Christians in the Republican electorate and that are similar in makeup to some of those Santorum already has won.

“If we win Pennsylvania, it sets up huge momentum going into the month of May, which we believe will be a great month for us,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s top strategist. “We think Pennsylvania will be do or die for both candidates.”

Santorum has said he will not consider dropping out of the race until it is clear that Romney has reached the delegate threshold to guarantee his nomination. The former governor began the day with almost 572 delegates, while Santorum was at 272, according to the Associated Press count.

Gingrich and Paul also have vowed to stay in the race for now, but they are not attacking Romney the way Santorum has been doing. Gingrich in particular has shifted his rhetorical focus from Romney to the president.

Herman Cain: Romney must pick VP who will ‘bring some excitement to the ticket’

GILBERT, Ariz. – Should Mitt Romney follow the advice of one of his top backers, former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, that “the winning choice is the dull choice” when it comes to a running mate?

Businessman and former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)Not according to Herman Cain.

The businessman and former GOP presidential hopeful – who dropped out of the race in November amid allegations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair — said in an interview here Tuesday night that the best choice for Romney is a VP who will energize the GOP ticket.

“I just want it to be someone that people can be excited about,” Cain said after addressing the annual dinner of a local tea party group. “I think that enthusiasm gap is going to be the biggest challenge that we’re going to have, because of the primary, because of all of the unpredictability. I just want to see someone who’s going to bring some excitement to the ticket.”

Might Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) be that kind of choice?

“He would be one,” Cain said. “He would bring some excitement to the ticket. But here again, you’ve got to consider what he wants to do versus what the nominee wants to do.”

How about Cain himself?

“There again, we’ll have to see if we get to that point, because when I have offered my assistance to the candidates, I wasn’t looking for anything, I didn’t ask for anything and they didn’t offer anything,” he said. “So, it’s just too premature to say whether something like that would make any sense or not.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rising Fuel Costs Worry Restaurateurs

Metro Atlanta restaurateurs are worried that their return to prosperity from the 2009 recession may be jeopardized by rising commodities prices — especially gasoline.

Restaurants fear rising fuel costs could jeopardize recovery

Restaurateurs Use Different Strategies To Absorb Increased Costs

Restaurants fear rising fuel costs could jeopardize recovery

By Leon Stafford

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

5:00 a.m. Sunday, April 1, 2012

Two years after getting back on their feet, metro Atlanta restaurateurs are increasingly worried that rising commodities prices — especially gasoline — could end their industry’s tenuous return to good health.

Operators say fuel surcharges on food deliveries — common the first time gas prices reached $4 a gallon in 2008 — are again being used by distributors as they grapple with increasing transportation costs. Bills for many staple commodities, such as beef and corn, are skyrocketing as it becomes more expensive to get them to stores.

Nancy Oswald, co-owner of Atlanta’s Ruth Chris Steak House franchise, said in an email that “since the beginning of March, we have witnessed the following increases in prime beef prices: 6.81 percent on ribeye loins, 11.19 percent on strip loins, and 9.4 percent on tenderloins.

“As these are our three biggest sellers [New York strips, ribeyes and filets], the increase has had a dramatic effect on our food cost,” she said.

Diners, so far, seem immune to the gas price hikes, restaurant operators said. Customer traffic has not slowed down as paying at the pump has become more costly, though restaurateurs admit it is too early to draw conclusions with certainty.

But Bob Amick of Concentrics Restaurants said restaurants like his, which include One Midtown Kitchen and Two Urban Licks, are destinations that attract consumers from greater distances than typical eateries. He could lose business if diners opt to eat out closer to home instead of making long drives because gas is too expensive.

Restaurants Important To Hospitality Sector

The strength of the restaurant industry is important to metro Atlanta’s $11 billion hospitality sector. The area has thousands of eateries — from dives to fast-food chains to elegantly designed independents — and the industry is one of Atlanta’s biggest employers.

In a small sample, NetFinancials, an Atlanta company that offers tax and accounting services for restaurant companies, surveyed 71 independent restaurants and found same-store sales were up 6.25 percent in 2011 over the year before. Of those surveyed, 78 percent had positive sales increases in the fourth quarter of 2011 while 22 percent saw their numbers fall. Total sales volume was about $152 million for the year.

Those figures were gathered before the latest surge in gas prices started, which said was right after Christmas.

The fear is a return to what happened in 2009, when the aftershock from the financial collapse left many metro Atlanta restaurants empty, especially high-end destinations that relied on business people dining on corporate accounts. Operators offered two-for-one specials to drive traffic while consumers traded down to fast-food and family-style all-you-can-eat restaurants to stretch their dollars.

Food Costs No. 1 Challenge

The National Restaurant Association said food costs are the No. 1 challenge nationally for operators for 2012, edging out the economy, the top worry in 2011. Wholesale food costs grew 8 percent in 2011, the group reported. Food expenses were up 4.9 percent in 2010.

Debby Cannon, director of the school of hospitality administration at Georgia State University, said consumer confidence is better than it was two years ago and that can act as a buffer against rising prices. The warmer-than-usual winter also gave diners a little extra money in their pockets.

“Restaurants are our relief,” she said. “If we can’t go out of town, we will make eating out our luxury.”

Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said the key for restaurants will be to communicate to consumers how convenient dining out is, and to use social media and coupons to draw them in.

“Americans are not going to quit going out to dinner,” she said. “We saw this happen during the Great Recession, when things were even more uncertain. People continued to eat out — they just traded down.”

Restaurateurs Use Different Strategies To Absorb Increased Costs

Robert Gerstenecker, chef at Park 75 at the Four Seasons Atlanta, said restaurants have tried to absorb most of the increased costs caused by fuel prices through various methods.

For instance, his tony Midtown restaurant, which has seen costs rise 10 percent to 15 percent this year, cut expenses by making its own bacon, salami, pickles, jams, chutney and spices. They’re also growing their own vegetables.

He is encouraging diners to work out special deals for eating in large groups or to carpool to events like Hotel Restaurant Week, which began Saturday.

“It’s so fragile right now,” he said of making ends meet without big menu price increases. “We hope it will get better, but there are so many chances for that stagnation to come back.”

Phil Wilkins, owner of the Atlanta franchise of Smashburger, said he expects consumers to become more cost-conscious as gas prices creep up. That, however, won’t stop them from eating out.

“They will be more cautious during the weekdays but treat themselves on the weekend,” he said.

At Big Pie in the Sky Pizzeria in Kennesaw, owner Dirk Tendick said prices on several goods — especially flour and cheese — have increased 50 percent since the restaurant opened in 2007. And because all of the supplies for the establishment — known for its 30-inch pizzas — are delivered by truck, gas prices have been a big contributor to the spike in prices.

But the eatery has held off on passing those costs to customers, hoping that repeat business and good word of mouth will bring enough volume to compensate for rising expenses.

“We have not increased our prices because trying to extract the most money possible from our customers on every visit is not in line with our philosophy,” Tendick said.