After the walloping they took last night in Illinois, Rick Santorum’s supporters are hopeful that the next stop on the Republican primary calendar will cheer them up. Santorum is favored to win Saturday’s Louisiana Primary but that won’t change the fact that on Tuesday, he lost one of his last chances to win a state whose GOP is not dominated by evangelicals. The 47-35 percent beating he took in Illinois — which allowed Romney to win all but a handful of the state’s convention delegates — does more than merely reinforce the sense of Romney’s inevitability that is now acknowledged by all but the most diehard of his opponents’ supporters. The pattern of voting is such that there is now no longer any credible scenario that can be put forward in which Romney is denied a majority of the convention’s delegates by June.
Though the race will go on for at least another month, for the first time in this long and tortuous race, the end is clearly in sight. The April 24 Pennsylvania primary now looks to be an opportunity for Romney to close out his opponent by beating him in his home state. But even if Santorum can hold onto Pennsylvania, the May 8 trio of North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia may be his last stand especially since Romney is likely to win most of the states that vote in April. The delegate math makes it impossible for Santorum to pretend that he can actually win the nomination on his own. Not even the complete collapse of Newt Gingrich’s candidacy — the former speaker finished dead last in the field of four behind Ron Paul — has been enough to prevent the frontrunner from assuming a commanding lead that will not be overtaken.
It is true that Romney is still losing among evangelical and very conservative GOP primary voters. But he is winning virtually every other demographic slice of the electorate including Tea Party supporters. While not being acclaimed with acclamation or even a great deal of enthusiasm, the notion that Republicans are unwilling to embrace Romney may be finally being put to rest. Those voting in GOP primaries continue to assert that the ability to beat President Obama in November is the most desirable quality in a candidate and there’s little doubt that Romney has the best chance of any Republican in the race.
Romney also appears to be hitting his stride as a candidate finally articulating a compelling case for his candidacy. His victory speech last focused on the theme of economic freedom rather than merely his usual laundry list of complaints about the president. If he can stay on that message, it will help him win over doubtful conservatives as well as reminding the rest of the electorate of his economic qualifications.
Though Santorum and Gingrich continue to complain about Romney’s huge financial advantage that excuse is also not exactly galvanizing the Republican base. The inability to raise the funds needed to compete or to run a campaign that is competent enough to file qualified delegate states wherever needed — points on which both challengers have fallen short — is hardly a recommendation for a presidential candidate. Even if Santorum is able to duplicate in Louisiana the same appeal that won him Mississippi and Alabama last week, that won’t convince anyone that he can win states with more diverse electorates, let alone amass enough delegates to prevent Romney from gaining a majority by June.
This sets up a GOP endgame in which Santorum, who has done far better than anyone ever thought possible last year, will play out the hand he has been dealt in the next few weeks. But there are few, if any, other wins waiting for him on the calendar. That will raise expectations that whether or not he wins Pennsylvania, his campaign will probably come to an end in the next four to six weeks.