Three headlines from Wednesday morning’s Real Clear Politics roundup neatly summarize the quizzical state of the Republican presidential race after Tuesday’s votes in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri (full results here):
- “Voters Deal Romney Major Blow”
- “Three-State Sweep Revives Santorum’s White House Hopes”
- “Republican Delegate Count”
Let’s take these, one by one:
- Romney’s Troubles. Declared the “inevitable” nominee after last Saturday’s romp in Nevada, the former Massachusetts governor finds himself in pretty much the same sand bunker he was in a couple of weeks ago after the South Carolina defeat that followed the New Hampshire victory: the frontrunner who had a clear path to the nomination once again dogged by deep doubts about his ability to attract movement conservatives – Romney, the cool-headed CNBC-economics candidate not resonating with the hot-headed AM-talk crowd. Case in point: Rush Limbaugh’s Wednesday broadcast, the opening portion of which was dedicated to (a) the virtues of Rick Santorum’s conservative appeal; (b) the evils of Romney’s Massachusetts record (translation: the perceived parallels between Romneycare and Obamacare. It’s the same sniping that John McCain endured in 2008 (Romney, by the way, carrying Colorado and Minnesota in 2008). Does Romney, assuming he eventually earns the nomination, eventually make peace with the talk-radio crowd – or, does he exploit its most extreme elements in something of a “Sister Souljah moment”?
- Santorum’s Opening. Until March 6, at least, and a handful of southern “Super Tuesday” states (Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia) that could revive Newt Gingrich’s candidacy, it’s Santorum’s star turn as the non-Romney/non Paul choice in field. Santorum’s post-Tuesday spin: money and organization meant little in this week’s votes. He might have added: so did the same out-nowhere effect that worked for Santorum in his other win – the Iowa caucuses. Two things to watch between now and the next big votes at month’s end: (a) no longer an afterthought but a threat, does Romney’s campaign (and its non-affiliated super PAC) go full-throttle at the former Pennsylvania senator’s voting record; (b) whether Santorum can convert the fresh wins (and the fact that he’s now won in more states than Romney) into the cash he’ll need to compete in Arizona and Michigan (Feb. 28) and the 15 states will vote in first half of March.
- Delegate Math. When confused by the mixed results and the mixed messages, focus instead on the score sheet. Seven states have voted so far; add in Saturday’s Maine caucuses and, collectively, that’s a total of 243 delegates – barely one-tenth of the national total of 2,286 delegates (1,144 needed to win). It gets complicated, as several states are non-binding caucuses and members of the Republican National Committee can be factored in at this early stage, but the candidate’s current split looks something like this: Romney 107; Santorum 45; Gingrich 32; Paul 9. Things may remain murky – mathematically, that is – a month from now if Santorum continues to do well in socially conservative, central time-zone states (examples: Oklahoma, March 6; Kansas, March 10), Gingrich rises in the Deep South and Romney and Ron Paul get their usual cut. A state looking all the more pivotal: Texas. It’s scheduled to hold a primary on April 3; because of redistricting woes, it may be delayed. An alternate date of April 17 also seems unlikely. A conservative “surge” candidate would love to get a crack at the winner-take-all, 155 Texas delegates to soon after the March results.
Predictions at this point? February forecasts are best left to Super Bowl and Oscar handicappers, not to mention Punxsutawney Phil. It turns out: six more weeks of winter also means six more weeks of the GOP trying to sort out its presidential field.