With about a third of the delegates chosen for the Republican convention, any reasonable analysis of the math shows Mitt Romney will almost certainly wind up being the nominee. But, as Sean Trende points out at Real Clear Politics, the frontrunner will have to wait until June at the earliest to amass the majority he needs to formally lock the contest up. That means perhaps as long as three more months for him to be attacked from the right as a “Massachusetts moderate,” which will make it harder for him to convince conservatives to turn out in November in the numbers needed to beat President Obama.
The really hard part for Romney is the prospect of a brutal March including contests in Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana, where he will be the underdog to Rick Santorum. Though the upcoming weeks will bring some bright spots such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Illinois, where Romney will be favored, this will be a difficult period for the frontrunner as Santorum and Newt Gingrich (assuming he doesn’t drop out or become as marginal as Ron Paul), continue to abuse him as a product of the establishment whose health care record is indistinguishable from that of Obama. But as grim as that prospect may be for his campaign, if their candidate can pocket one or two of the states where he is thought to have little chance, it could alter an otherwise unpromising March narrative.
Trende’s analysis of the upcoming contests predicts defeats for Romney in the south along with likely losses in Kansas and Missouri. A string of defeats to Santorum in those states along with what may be a replay in Illinois of his narrow victories in Michigan and Ohio would paint a portrait of a faltering “inevitable” candidate who is weakest in his party’s heartland. Even worse, it could create more pressure on Newt Gingrich to drop out in Santorum’s favor though, as I wrote yesterday, I think the odds of that happening are slim.
Yet as long as Gingrich stays in the race, Romney still has an opportunity to steal one or two southern states. Though there has not been much polling done for many of the upcoming primaries, the most recent one coming out of Alabama shows the assumption that he hasn’t a chance anywhere in the Deep South may be mistaken. An Alabama Education Association poll published on Wednesday of likely Republican voters gave Romney a 9-percentage point lead over both Santorum and Gingrich who are in a virtual tie for second. We have seen bigger leads than that turn around in less time than the few days left until Alabama and Mississippi vote, and a Santorum victory in Kansas this weekend may help provide a bit more momentum to his low-budget campaign in the south.
With evangelicals providing many, if not most of the votes in these states, pundits do well to give Santorum the edge. But if Romney is able to use his superior financial resources to pull out one or two wins it may be a sign that after his Super Tuesday victories that lengthened his delegate lead, some conservatives may be prepared to throw in the towel and make their peace with him. A victory in any one of those that we may have assumed would go to Santorum could be a game changer in that respect. If so, it could transform March from the cruelest month in the GOP calendar for Romney to one in which his nomination became that much more certain.