Commentary Magazine


Topic: Illinois Primary

Time to Close? GOP Horse Race is Over

I echo Jonathan’s sentiments this morning when he wrote, “for the first time in this long and tortuous race, the end is clearly in sight.” After almost a full year of following an exhausting and dramatic primary race, it’s about time to switch over to the general election.

Of course nobody is encouraging that narrative more than the Romney campaign, which sent out a fundraising email immediately after its victory last night headlined “Time to Close”:

Tonight, we have taken one more step toward restoring the promise of America. And tomorrow we wake up and start again.

This November, we face a defining decision. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot, and I intend to offer the American people a clear choice.

Tonight’s win means we are that much closer to securing the nomination, uniting our party, and taking on President Obama. We are almost there. Help us close strong in the remaining contests by donating $10 today.

At this point, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, Romney secures the nomination. Of course, the major media outlets still are still covering this as if it’s still a horse race.

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I echo Jonathan’s sentiments this morning when he wrote, “for the first time in this long and tortuous race, the end is clearly in sight.” After almost a full year of following an exhausting and dramatic primary race, it’s about time to switch over to the general election.

Of course nobody is encouraging that narrative more than the Romney campaign, which sent out a fundraising email immediately after its victory last night headlined “Time to Close”:

Tonight, we have taken one more step toward restoring the promise of America. And tomorrow we wake up and start again.

This November, we face a defining decision. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot, and I intend to offer the American people a clear choice.

Tonight’s win means we are that much closer to securing the nomination, uniting our party, and taking on President Obama. We are almost there. Help us close strong in the remaining contests by donating $10 today.

At this point, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, Romney secures the nomination. Of course, the major media outlets still are still covering this as if it’s still a horse race.

Washington Post:

Despite the solid victory for Romney, who has eeked out more modest wins elsewhere in the Midwest, the contest is unlikely to dramatically shake up the basic geometry of the race. Though Illinois is a major prize for Romney, who will claim the majority of the state’s 54 delegates, the victory does not close the door on Rick Santorum, who will also win a portion of those delegates and has vowed to soldier on.

The Wall Street Journal:

Bolstered by his strong showing Tuesday in the Illinois primary, Mitt Romney has built a commanding lead, but the prize remains elusive. While he is winning in the delegate chase, he isn’t so far ahead that he is assured of entering the party convention this summer with the nomination sewn up.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is hyping the importance of the late-April Pennsylvania primary.

Santorum will fight on until at least late April, but, barring a major shakeup, his chances of winning the nomination have evaporated. He had a chance in Illinois, and a victory there could have showed a resurgence of momentum. But now it looks like he’ll follow the predicted path. He’ll win Louisiana, lose Wisconsin, and then slug it out until Pennsylvania. With each week, the calls for him to bow out gracefully will increase.

The question is, how long will the media shut their eyes to that reality? They have their own incentives for making it seem like the race is more competitive than it actually is. But at some point, it’s going to stretch credulity to keep covering the Santorum campaign as if he still has a serious chance of winning the nomination.

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Romney Juggernaut Sets Up GOP Endgame

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.

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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.

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Illinois Shows Santorum’s Weaknesses

The exit polls of Illinois Republican primary voters seem to illustrate some basic facts on the race. For all of the complaints about Mitt Romney’s inability to seal the deal with the GOP base he has still managed to cobble together a coalition of moderates and mainstream conservatives that enabled him to continue to pile up victories. With the networks already projecting a big win for Romney tonight, the frontrunner is not only building his big delegate lead, he is also showing his ability to win large pluralities having long since broken through the ceiling of 25 percent that once characterized his support. The Santorum camp may say that losing a large blue state like Illinois doesn’t mean anything in the long run and complain about being outspent but this was probably his last chance to challenge and beat Romney in a state that wasn’t dominated by evangelicals and extreme “very conservative” voters — the only groups the Pennsylvanian wins. If the exit polls are anything close to accurate, then he has lost any opportunity to dent Romney’s aura of inevitability.

The other interesting takeaway from the exit poll is the disastrous showing of Newt Gingrich. As was the case in Michigan and Ohio, Gingrich was a non-factor in Illinois. Indeed, he is so far off the pace, that it may no longer be possible to argue that he is splitting the conservative vote and thereby allowing Romney to win instead of Santorum. Santorum may be looking forward to winning in Louisiana this weekend, but there just aren’t enough big states where he is likely to win to seriously believe that he can be stopped. When you consider that Santorum was looking very competitive in Illinois just a week ago, it appears that the tide has turned against him.

The exit polls of Illinois Republican primary voters seem to illustrate some basic facts on the race. For all of the complaints about Mitt Romney’s inability to seal the deal with the GOP base he has still managed to cobble together a coalition of moderates and mainstream conservatives that enabled him to continue to pile up victories. With the networks already projecting a big win for Romney tonight, the frontrunner is not only building his big delegate lead, he is also showing his ability to win large pluralities having long since broken through the ceiling of 25 percent that once characterized his support. The Santorum camp may say that losing a large blue state like Illinois doesn’t mean anything in the long run and complain about being outspent but this was probably his last chance to challenge and beat Romney in a state that wasn’t dominated by evangelicals and extreme “very conservative” voters — the only groups the Pennsylvanian wins. If the exit polls are anything close to accurate, then he has lost any opportunity to dent Romney’s aura of inevitability.

The other interesting takeaway from the exit poll is the disastrous showing of Newt Gingrich. As was the case in Michigan and Ohio, Gingrich was a non-factor in Illinois. Indeed, he is so far off the pace, that it may no longer be possible to argue that he is splitting the conservative vote and thereby allowing Romney to win instead of Santorum. Santorum may be looking forward to winning in Louisiana this weekend, but there just aren’t enough big states where he is likely to win to seriously believe that he can be stopped. When you consider that Santorum was looking very competitive in Illinois just a week ago, it appears that the tide has turned against him.

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Romney Still Up By Double-Digits in Illinois

Mitt Romney is leading by 14-points in the American Research Group poll today, backing up yesterday’s Public Policy Polling survey that found Romney up by 15 points.

Mitt Romney leads the Illinois Republican presidential primary with 44%. Romney is followed by Rick Santorum with 30%, Newt Gingrich with 13%, and Ron Paul with 8%.

Romney leads Santorum 45% to 35% among self-identified Republicans, followed by Gingrich with 12% and Paul with 4%. Among self-identified independents and Democrats, Romney leads with 42%, followed by Paul with 20%, Gingrich with 17%, and Santorum with 16%.

Also note the gap between Santorum and Romney when it comes to women voters:

Romney leads Santorum 46% to 29% among women, followed by Gingrich with 12% and Paul with 8%.

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Mitt Romney is leading by 14-points in the American Research Group poll today, backing up yesterday’s Public Policy Polling survey that found Romney up by 15 points.

Mitt Romney leads the Illinois Republican presidential primary with 44%. Romney is followed by Rick Santorum with 30%, Newt Gingrich with 13%, and Ron Paul with 8%.

Romney leads Santorum 45% to 35% among self-identified Republicans, followed by Gingrich with 12% and Paul with 4%. Among self-identified independents and Democrats, Romney leads with 42%, followed by Paul with 20%, Gingrich with 17%, and Santorum with 16%.

Also note the gap between Santorum and Romney when it comes to women voters:

Romney leads Santorum 46% to 29% among women, followed by Gingrich with 12% and Paul with 8%.

Keep in mind; Santorum has performed better than polling projections, particularly in Alabama and Mississippi. And when it came to predicting the outcome in the Magnolia state, both PPP and ARG were way out of range, as Ed Morrissey explains:

Let’s not forget that both PPP and ARG didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory when it came to polling Mississippi.  Four days before the primaries, ARG had Santorum 15 points off the lead, with Gingrich edging Romney 35/31 and Santorum at 20%.  The day before the primary, PPP had Santorum trailing by six in third place.  Santorum ended up winning Mississippi by two points and 4500 votes.  That counts as a pretty big swing and a miss, even in primary polling.

But it’s less likely there will be a big discrepancy between the polling and final outcome in Illinois. At the Washington Post, Scott Clement notes that Alabama and Mississippi polls under-sampled evangelical turnout, a group Santorum tends to have broad support with.

This phenomenon may be muted in Illinois for at least one reason. The Huffington Post’s Mark Blumenthal finds a correlation between Santorum’s outperformance and the percentage of evangelicals in the state. As noted earlier, Illinois was about average in the percentage of evangelicals in 2008, while Alabama and Mississippi set records for the most evangelical electorates this year.

PPP found that evangelicals in Illinois support Santorum over Romney, but the margins aren’t wide enough to make much of a difference in the state.

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Poll: Romney Poised for Landslide in Illinois

According to Public Policy Polling’s latest survey today, Mitt Romney is now leading Rick Santorum, 45 percent to 30 percent, in Illinois. And the obstacles aren’t easily surmountable for Santorum. Not only is Romney polling ahead with groups he normally tends to do poorly with – rural voters, for example – but Santorum’s support is lagging with groups he needs to win. In this case, Tea Partiers and values voters:

Santorum’s winning the group he tends to do well with- Tea Partiers, Evangelicals, and those describing themselves as ‘very conservative.’ But he’s not winning them by the kinds of wide margins he would need to take an overall victory- he’s up only 8 with Tea Party voters and 10 with Evangelicals, groups he needs to win by more like 25 points with to hope to win in a northern state.

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According to Public Policy Polling’s latest survey today, Mitt Romney is now leading Rick Santorum, 45 percent to 30 percent, in Illinois. And the obstacles aren’t easily surmountable for Santorum. Not only is Romney polling ahead with groups he normally tends to do poorly with – rural voters, for example – but Santorum’s support is lagging with groups he needs to win. In this case, Tea Partiers and values voters:

Santorum’s winning the group he tends to do well with- Tea Partiers, Evangelicals, and those describing themselves as ‘very conservative.’ But he’s not winning them by the kinds of wide margins he would need to take an overall victory- he’s up only 8 with Tea Party voters and 10 with Evangelicals, groups he needs to win by more like 25 points with to hope to win in a northern state.

One reason could be Santorum’s perceived lack of expertise on economic issues, which Romney has begun emphasizing on the trail this week:

“I don’t think we’re going to replace an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight,” Romney said yesterday at the Machine Shed Restaurant in Rockford, Illinois, referring to Santorum, 53, and the president. “To beat Barack Obama, it’s going to take someone who understands the economy in his bones, and I do, and I will beat him with that understanding.”

The polling data is a sign that the seemingly-interminable race may finally be winding down soon. If Romney is able to lock up a strong victory, he’ll begin to rebuild the narrative of his inevitability, and the calls for party unity and the end of the infighting of the primary season will start up again in earnest. Of course, Santorum has outperformed polls in the past, so there’s certainly a chance he could do so again tomorrow.

Then again, while a Santorum victory tomorrow would extend the race, how far would it take him toward his ultimate goal of winning the nomination? Barring a game-changing miracle, his chance of becoming the nominee is still slim, as Nate Silver writes:

If Mr. Santorum were a little closer to Mr. Romney (say that he had qualified for the ballot in Virginia and won the state) and the allocation rules in the remaining states were a little more favorable to him (say that Texas was winner-take-all rather than proportional), perhaps the small-ball strategy would be worth pursing.

But he is far enough behind that he instead needs a “game change” — something that fundamentally alters the dynamics of the race and allows him to substantially improve on his benchmarks from previous states. …

Mr. Santorum’s odds of winning his campaign are nowhere near that good; the betting market Intrade, instead, now gives him just a 3 percent chance to win the nomination. His campaign is in more need of a game change than Mr. McCain’s ever was, and has even less to lose from high-risk strategies.

The most obvious game-changer would be if Newt Gingrich agreed to drop out and hand over his delegates to Santorum. Gingrich has been splitting the conservative vote, and if Santorum loses by a significant margin tomorrow night, Gingrich will likely get a good portion of the blame. But PPP found that even with Gingrich out of the race, Santorum would still trail Romney by 11 points, which suggests that Santorum’s problems may be more substantial.

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Mitt’s Island Landslide Sets Up Big Week

Rick Santorum invested a fair amount of precious, time and resources into campaigning for Sunday’s Puerto Rico Republican presidential primary. But it turned out to be a poor use of scarce resources for the GOP challenger at a time when he could least afford it. Mitt Romney cruised to a landslide victory in the Commonwealth. Romney won all 20 delegates up for grabs as residents of the island turned out in relatively strong numbers. Despite promoting himself as the senator from Puerto Rico, whatever hopes the Pennsylvanian might have had in Puerto Rico were probably sunk when he asserted that the island must adopt English as its official language if it wants statehood. Santorum got only 8 percent of the more than 100,000 votes cast, the sort of dismal result he might have gotten even without bothering to show up there last week as he did.

Romney can now brag that he has the ability to generate support for Hispanic voters even though none of this who turned out on Sunday will have the ability to vote for him in November. But no matter how you spin the result, the delegates he won gets him a bit closer to the nomination. Just as important, the win gives him an extra touch of momentum heading into the pivotal Illinois primary on Tuesday.

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Rick Santorum invested a fair amount of precious, time and resources into campaigning for Sunday’s Puerto Rico Republican presidential primary. But it turned out to be a poor use of scarce resources for the GOP challenger at a time when he could least afford it. Mitt Romney cruised to a landslide victory in the Commonwealth. Romney won all 20 delegates up for grabs as residents of the island turned out in relatively strong numbers. Despite promoting himself as the senator from Puerto Rico, whatever hopes the Pennsylvanian might have had in Puerto Rico were probably sunk when he asserted that the island must adopt English as its official language if it wants statehood. Santorum got only 8 percent of the more than 100,000 votes cast, the sort of dismal result he might have gotten even without bothering to show up there last week as he did.

Romney can now brag that he has the ability to generate support for Hispanic voters even though none of this who turned out on Sunday will have the ability to vote for him in November. But no matter how you spin the result, the delegates he won gets him a bit closer to the nomination. Just as important, the win gives him an extra touch of momentum heading into the pivotal Illinois primary on Tuesday.

While nothing that happens on Tuesday will knock Santorum out of the race, Illinois looms large in his hopes to topple the frontrunner. It represents one of the last chances he has to beat Romney in a large state. If he falls short as he did in Michigan and Ohio, then it will be difficult, if not impossible for him to claim that he is anything but a factional spoiler with no chance of winning the nomination.

Were Santorum to win in Illinois, and right now all the polls taken so far show him trailing, then it will be a huge boost for his presidential hopes. More importantly, it would be the sort of blow to his credibility that would make the Mr. Inevitable reputation that his campaign is trying so hard to promote look silly. At the same time, consecutive victories by Santorum in Illinois and then in Louisiana next weekend would be the sort of momentum shift that would have Republicans wondering if Santorum could win the nomination outright.

But Romney appears on track right now to put an end to that happy scenario for Santorum. A big win in Illinois would be the sort of thing that might lead many Republicans to tell Santorum that it was time for him to bring the contest to an end. Though his backers may be looking forward to a brokered convention, as a man who hopes he has future in the GOP, Santorum must know that there will be negative long range consequences for him if his actions sabotage Republican hopes in 2012 by hanging on long after he lost any chance to win. A big Romney win on Tuesday could lead to exactly this sort of a discussion in the GOP.

That’s why Romney is working hard in Illinois even though he has a lead. In a race that has been filled with ups and downs and upsets of every variety, if Romney outperforms expectations there as he did in Illinois, it could be the beginning of the end for Santorum.

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What Can Santorum Offer Gingrich?

After last night’s twin triumphs in the Deep South for Rick Santorum, the future of the Republican presidential race has come down to one question: is there anything the Pennsylvanian can do to entice Newt Gingrich to drop out and endorse him or to just suspend his campaign? Though the delegate math still favors Mitt Romney, next week’s Illinois primary looms as yet another do-or-die test in much the same way Michigan and Ohio did. Santorum fell short in both of those states, allowing Mr. Inevitable to survive, though just barely. With polls showing Santorum only trailing Romney in Illinois by a few percentage points, the question is what can he do to make up the gap this time?

The obvious answer for Santorum is to somehow persuade Gingrich to get out of the race. I wrote last week detailing seven reasons why I thought the former speaker wouldn’t do it. I still think I’m right about that, but after defeats in Mississippi and Alabama, there is no longer any conceivable scenario by which Gingrich could be nominated. His mere presence on the ballot helps divide the conservative vote and might, as it did in Michigan and Ohio, allow Romney to squeak out a victory. If Gingrich is at all inclined to bargain with Santorum then his bargaining power will never be greater than it is at this moment. That leaves us to ponder whether the speaker might be willing to accept a promise of a place on the ticket or a cabinet post in exchange for backing Santorum.

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After last night’s twin triumphs in the Deep South for Rick Santorum, the future of the Republican presidential race has come down to one question: is there anything the Pennsylvanian can do to entice Newt Gingrich to drop out and endorse him or to just suspend his campaign? Though the delegate math still favors Mitt Romney, next week’s Illinois primary looms as yet another do-or-die test in much the same way Michigan and Ohio did. Santorum fell short in both of those states, allowing Mr. Inevitable to survive, though just barely. With polls showing Santorum only trailing Romney in Illinois by a few percentage points, the question is what can he do to make up the gap this time?

The obvious answer for Santorum is to somehow persuade Gingrich to get out of the race. I wrote last week detailing seven reasons why I thought the former speaker wouldn’t do it. I still think I’m right about that, but after defeats in Mississippi and Alabama, there is no longer any conceivable scenario by which Gingrich could be nominated. His mere presence on the ballot helps divide the conservative vote and might, as it did in Michigan and Ohio, allow Romney to squeak out a victory. If Gingrich is at all inclined to bargain with Santorum then his bargaining power will never be greater than it is at this moment. That leaves us to ponder whether the speaker might be willing to accept a promise of a place on the ticket or a cabinet post in exchange for backing Santorum.

On Santorum’s side of that equation, there are two good arguments against making such an offer.

One is that it is possible Gingrich is about to fade out of the picture anyway. Why pay a high price for his support when it might not be worth much in the coming months?

The other is a bit more principled. Having seen what Gingrich was like when he was Speaker of the House, could Santorum really bring himself to put such an inconsistent and often unfocused person only a heartbeat away from the presidency?

Gingrich may also reason that his bargaining power will increase rather than decline if neither Romney nor Santorum wins a majority of delegates by the time the primaries end. Though he may not be so foolish as to believehe could be a compromise solution in a brokered convention, it’s hard to imagine Gingrich being willing to toss in the towel at this moment when he still thinks he might be able to play the kingmaker this summer.

Yet, if Gingrich really wants to remain a factor in the presidential race, a deal that made him Santorum’s running mate might be his best bet. Indeed, one can actually imagine him getting the equally loquacious and egotistic Vice President Joe Biden to agree to Lincoln-Douglas style debates.

As for Santorum, as unpalatable as the prospect of getting into bed with a prima donna like Gingrich may be, he also needs to ask himself how much he really wants to be president and whether he is willing to pay any political price to win.

If Gingrich stays on the ballot rather than on the sidelines, the odds are Romney finds a way to win Illinois and still manages to take the nomination. For all of his bravado about the delegate math not mattering, Santorum understands at this stage, it is everything. Unless he can get his one-on-one matchup with Romney and get it soon, Santorum will probably fall short of the mark. A grand deal with Gingrich that promised him the vice presidency might actually be the only way he can achieve this scenario.

Of course, all this is pure speculation. It will probably never happen due to Santorum’s reluctance to deal with Gingrich and the former speaker’s delusions about his own non-existent chances. But if Santorum and Gingrich really believe Romney must be stopped, then sooner or later they are bound to think about the possibility of a deal.

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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.

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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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