With Mitt Romney’s overwhelming victory in Nevada– he won just over 50 percent of the vote –the former Massachusetts governor has secured three double-digit wins in the Northeast (New Hampshire), the West (Nevada), and the South (Florida). He remains in the catbird seat. For him to lose the nomination would require an epic collapse. I rather doubt we’ll see it.
What makes this week marginally interesting is whether Rick Santorum supplants Newt Gingrich as the “conservative alternative” to Romney. That depends on how Santorum does tomorrow in Colorado and Minnesota, the next states that hold GOP nominating contests, as well as Missouri, which holds a “beauty contest” (the state’s official nominating process takes place later in the year). It seems to me, and increasingly to others, that Santorum is a far better figure for conservatives to rally behind than Gingrich, whose weaknesses I have dealt with at length in the past. I’ll only add that at his press conference on Saturday Gingrich looked to be seething with rage for Romney, and he demonstrated, one more time, that he simply doesn’t have the emotional balance and temperamental traits that one looks for in a president. There’s something a bit sad in watching Gingrich, who has done a great deal for the conservative cause in his life, burn up like this.
As for Governor Romney: he’s now in excellent position to win the nomination. He’s winning elections, which is what matters. Non-Romney voters have not so far coalesced among any of the other candidates. Romney dominates among the GOP’s moderate wing, including non-Tea Party supporters and non-evangelicals. Most Republicans see him as the candidate with the best chance to beat President Obama in the fall. More than seven in 10 believe he’ll be the eventual nominee. He’s repelled every assault against him, having shown he can lift his game. And he retains a vast advantage over the other candidates in terms of money and organization.
But Romney still faces challenges. Voter turnout remains surprisingly low in most of the contests so far. He might be a bit vulnerable in parts of the Midwest. To date, he hasn’t been able to convince voters his campaign is tied to a great cause (it’s very Romney-centric right now). The cage match against Gingrich has hurt Romney’s reputation with (among others) independent voters. And nationally, Romney still doesn’t fair all that well among those who identify themselves as “very conservative” and evangelicals. It should be said, however, that Romney does quite well among those who consider themselves “somewhat conservative” and, as Jay Cost points out, Romney is actually pulling in the second-largest number of “very conservative” votes, and among all conservatives (“somewhat” and “very”), he leads Gingrich, 39 percent to 35 percent.
Where things stand at this moment, then, is that the Romney machine rolls on against a weak field. It’s hard to see how he’ll be stopped. Right now, Romney is a strong but not yet an outstanding candidate, steady and reassuring but hardly inspiring. And he needs to find a way to connect with working class voters. In short, he still needs to improve as he turns his attention to Obama, who is on the upswing. My guess is Romney will.