Romney's Problematic Illinois Win

Mitt Romney knows what he wants – the nomination – and he is pretty sure that last night he took another big step towards achieving his goal. Which is not to say he sealed the deal last night: a 46% to 35% win is a big win, to be sure, but while he was outspending the cash-strapped campaign of Rick Santorum by 7-1, you might have thought Romney could break 50%. Nonetheless, barring a banana peel on his path to the convention, it is difficult to see how any of the other candidates can keep him from the magic number of 1,144 delegated needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot.

The key disappointment for the Romney campaign must be their inability to generate anything like enthusiasm from the GOP base. He has yet to win a primary in which white evangelicals constitute more than fifty percent of the voters. Perhaps they think that the GOP base’s hatred for Obama is so great, it doesn’t matter whether they like Romney, their hatred of Obama will drive them to the polls in droves. It is possible. But, some people like to be voting for, as well as against, and even a slight drop-off in white evangelical turnout could cost the GOP key states like Ohio, Michigan and Virginia.

It is difficult to see what Santorum wants at this stage. Certainly, he can entertain the idea – what would happen if he could match Romney dollar-for-dollar – but he can’t match Romney in fundraising and while Santorum’s seat-of-the-pants campaign organization may have engendered a bit of charm and awe in Iowa, last night, his campaign failed to have delegate slates in every district so 10 of the 54 delegates awarded we already off the table before the voting even began. Similarly, think of how different the trajectory of the race, and specifically the delegate count, might have been if both Santorum and Newt Gingrich had qualified for the ballot in the Commonwealth of Virginia!

Finally, is Newt back to selling books? He released a very churlish statement last night after Romney’s Illinois win that displayed for all the nation just how bad the bad blood is between the two men. Yet, as long as he is in the race, he denies Santorum a credible shot at taking on Romney one-on-one. Look at last night’s results. Gingrich got a paltry 8% of the vote, but if that 8% was combined with Santorum’s total, or even if most of it had gone to Santorum, the race would have had a very different complexion. If Romney had won 47% to 42% over Santorum, instead of winning by double digits, the lede in the newspapers this morning would be something like this: “Despite outspending Rick Santorum by a 7-1 margin, Mitt Romney only narrowly escaped disaster last night….”

If Newt were to drop out now and endorse Santorum, it is difficult to see what that would do for the party. Indeed, it would only further divide the party at this point, creating two clear-cut wings, the Romney wing and the anti-Romney wing. There would be a certain justice in such a development, seeing as Romney’s campaign so far has been less about touting his own qualifications and more a series of serial hits on his opponents. But the GOP has a particular interest in not wounding further the man who is likely to face Obama in November.

Santorum has also grown nastier in his attacks on Romney, and vice-versa. If Santorum is hoping for the VP nod, the longer the race goes and the nastier it gets, the more remote that possibility becomes. Same for Newt. The best he can hope for from a Romney administration is White House czar for colonizing the moon.

Romney’s campaign surrogates were already calling last night for the nominating process to come to a close and for all Republicans to rally around the former governor from Massachusetts. They will be playing the “inevitability” card all this week. But, does that help Romney? He should be talking about his goals for America, not about delegate math. Four years ago, Obama got an unlikely gift from his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. At a time when the Obama campaign was talking about inevitability and delegate math, Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric gave Obama the opportunity to deliver one of his best speeches of the entire campaign. It was a make-or-break moment for Obama and he hit a home run. I am far less confident Romney could deal with a similar difficulty with similar aplomb. And, in the absence of that kind of defining moment, and his minions will be discussing proportional delegate selection. Yawn.

So, the race now is Romney’s to lose and he needs to start turning his attention to November. Unfortunately for him, in several key battleground states like Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Missouri and Florida, Romney has already introduced himself to the voters. He is the guy who comes on at the end of a vicious attack ad and says, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.” Negative campaigning works in the short-term but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially for swing voters who more than anything want an end to partisan gridlock in Washington. The fact that such a goal as ending partisan gridlock is manifestly unattainable does not make it any less desired by those who choose not to classify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

In a word, the real winner of the GOP primary process to date is not Romney, it’s Obama.

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