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Santorum Momentum Poses a Challenge to Romney’s Math

The two primaries in Alabama and Mississippi were a trap for Rick Santorum because anything but victories for him could have been construed as devastating blows to his campaign. Wins by Mitt Romney would have demonstrated his ability to win in any part of the country including states where conservatives and evangelical voters predominate. Wins by Newt Gingrich would have given him a reason to go on other than his ego. But by sweeping both Deep South states that voted on Tuesday, Santorum added two more triumphs to the already impressive list of states that he has won. The delegate math will not be altered much today due to the proportional allocation system as well as Romney’s expected wins in Hawaii and American Samoa. But though Romney can still have a reasonable expectation of ultimately winning the nomination, Santorum’s momentum places the notion of his inevitability in doubt.

Even if, as I expect, Gingrich stays in the race after losing the last two states where he could have been said to have had a chance to win, Santorum is now in a position to do some real damage to the Romney juggernaut in the upcoming weeks. With polls already showing Romney having only a slight lead over Santorum in a large state like Illinois where he ought to win, Tuesday’s victories allow the Pennsylvanian to hope  he can add to his string of upsets. If Santorum ends March by stacking up victories in Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri, then although he will still be trailing badly in the delegate count, his path to the nomination won’t look quite so much of a fantasy as it did a few weeks ago. Though Romney will still have impressive advantages, so long as the votes are still be counted state by state, momentum has a way of overwhelming math.

At the bottom of this equation remain two hard facts that remain the key factors in the GOP race.

One is the undeniable problem that Romney has with conservative voters. Due to his flip-flops on the issues during the years, they neither trust nor particularly like him. Though he has tried hard to demonstrate that his positions are now as conservative as any of his rivals, he simply doesn’t have a way to convince evangelicals or Tea Partiers that he understands and shares their values. Should he become the Republican nominee, I believe most would ultimately back him as the only alternative to four more years of Barack Obama but until then, the majority on the right will always prefer to cast their primary and caucus ballots for someone they can more readily identify with. Though even most conservatives know that Santorum is less electable than Romney, he will be able to count on the votes of conservatives so long as there is any chance he can win the nomination.

The second fact is that Romney continues to benefit from a divided conservative field. Though Gingrich spent most of his speech Tuesday night mocking Romney rather than acknowledging his own defeat, the man he derides as a “Massachusetts moderate” is the prime beneficiary of his decision to stay in the race. Though the Gingrich factor will not be as significant in the upcoming weeks, any votes that he takes away from Santorum could be decisive in handing a crucial state like Illinois to Romney in the same way that his presence helped deliver Michigan and Ohio to the frontrunner.

While Romney must still be considered the likely Republican nominee, Santorum’s victories will make his task far more difficult and ensure that even if he emerges from the gauntlet of hard fought primaries on top, he will be significantly weakened as well as having had his resources depleted. The more primaries Santorum wins, the more time Republicans will spend beating each other up rather than focusing on Obama’s weaknesses.


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