In a year in which the Republican Party’s proportional delegate allocation rules have ruled out a quick end to the presidential race, it isn’t possible for any candidate to use this week’s Super Tuesday primaries to lock up the GOP nomination. With new polls showing he has either caught or surpassed Rick Santorum in the crucial Ohio and Tennessee primaries, Mitt Romney can take a crucial step toward the nomination in tomorrow’s 10-state showdown. If Romney wins in both of those states, that may mean Santorum could end the day without a single triumph to his name. With the fading Newt Gingrich ahead in his adopted home state of Georgia, a Super Tuesday shutout might be a telling blow to Santorum. By tomorrow night, Santorum’s February surge may well be replaced by a March collapse.
The reason for Romney’s growing strength isn’t hard to discern. The frontrunner’s problems have not gone away. He still has trouble connecting with voters and conservatives have yet to accept him as one of their own. But the continued presence of two weak conservative rivals in the field have nevertheless put Mitt Romney in position to solidify his delegate lead as well as strengthen the impression he is the inevitable Republican standard bearer.
Romney’s path to the nomination remains the same as it was before the votes started being cast. With conservatives unable to unite behind a single, viable candidate, the well-funded Romney has managed to survive the scorn of most Tea Partiers and evangelicals and continued to pile up pluralities in most of the contests. Few in the party are sold on him, and the slight revival of the economy in recent months has even cast some doubt on his electability against a strengthened Barack Obama. But politics is always a matter of comparisons, and alongside Santorum and Gingrich, not to mention the libertarian outlier Ron Paul, Romney looks like the only one with even a prayer in November.
Santorum had his chance last week in Michigan to turn the race around and send Romney into a tailspin from which he might not have recovered. But in the week before that vote, his long record of embarrassing statements on social issues caught up to him in much the same way some of Gingrich’s personal and political baggage eventually dragged him down during his two surges in the polls. With both of his main rivals crippled in this manner and with each of them ensuring the other can never achieve a one-on-one confrontation with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor has become, almost by default, a frontrunner and is now on the verge of being acclaimed as the certain nominee.
The keys to achieving that status will be found in Ohio and Tennessee. Romney’s momentum looks like it will be enough to carry him over the top in the big prize tomorrow in Ohio. However, Tennessee could be just as important. It is the sort of southern state that Romney is expected to lose because its Republican electorate is largely made up of voters who have shunned him so far. But the We Ask America poll of the state published today shows him taking a one-point lead over both Santorum and Gingrich. The 30-29-29 result is a virtual three-way tie, so no one should assume a Romney victory, but the perception of a rising Romney tide may help him there. If Romney can win in a southern state like Tennessee, the argument will underline the fact he is the only one of the GOP contenders who is truly running a national campaign.
Though Gingrich will pretend a win in Georgia gives him a chance to become a regional candidate and win other southern states, a Santorum shutout will be the beginning of the end for the Pennsylvanian and make it harder for him to raise the money to run a viable campaign elsewhere.