It Looks Like It Might Be Over, But We Need It To Go On

As I write this,  Mitt Romney is up 12,000 votes in Ohio with 96 percent reporting. That doesn’t necessarily mean the race is over, but it’s hard to see Rick Santorum pulling that race out.

Santorum had to have Ohio. What’s coming up in the next couple of weeks doesn’t look like it will help him.

Alabama and Mississippi look like they’re going to be better territory for Newt Gingrich than Santorum. And at this point if Gingrich wins Southern states it helps Romney, because if Santorum can’t carry the South against Romney he really can’t win.

Particularly if he couldn’t clean up Ohio. Ohio was key for Santorum.

Santorum did win Tennessee and Oklahoma, which indicates that he does have some reach in the South. But not enough. Nobody sees Santorum winning Texas, for example – Rick Perry endorsed Gingrich and Gingrich will be all over that state trying to use it as a bulwark. And Louisiana might well be a Gingrich-Romney battle, at least based on what polling there is.

Romney’s Mormon connections will help him in the Rocky Mountain states still out there, and his money is likely going to win him California and New York.

Do all this calculus, and there just isn’t a path to the magic number of delegates for either Santorum or Gingrich. If anybody is going to get to 1144 delegates, Romney is that guy.

I’ve posted before that I don’t really care anymore. Any one of the three can beat Obama, and any one of the three would be a major improvement over Obama.

Romney is the guy who’s going to get the nomination, even though there’s no particular reason for Santorum or Gingrich – or even Ron Paul – to get out at this point. Romney is bumping along, but he isn’t really picking up all that much momentum at this point. If he had, you’d have seen him run stronger in Oklahoma, for example, or he would have won Ohio by a larger number.

The conventional wisdom is beginning to build that “oh, this is going on for too long,” and that the GOP candidates are beating each other up too badly. I’ve heard that a million times in the last week.

I reject it completely.

Mitt Romney is a much better presidential candidate now than he was in December, or even January. He’s better on policy, his speeches are more forceful, he’s a little less stiff, he’s showing a little more fire and emotion and he’s offering bolder ideas.  I’m not saying that I particularly like him as a candidate yet – I never really have – but he’s showing that he understands he has to actually appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party in order to be its nominee.

So far his success in doing that has been mixed. But he’s better. And what that means is we don’t need this race to end anytime soon.

Romney needs to earn this nomination state by state, congressional district by congressional district, town by town. It’s the only way he can close this sale.

Romney isn’t going to have an “I paid for this microphone” moment. He’s not a guy who brings flash to the table. The bold strokes that close the deal with the voters seem to elude him.

He’s not the guy who makes the girls swoon. He’s the guy who has to endure in Friendship Hell until one day she gets tired of the players and the pretty boys and settles down with the guy who makes her feel secure.

And the only way a guy gets out of Friendship Hell is that he knows the girl so well that even if he can’t sweep her off her feet he finally figures out how to push enough of her buttons that he becomes the guy she thinks can take care of her.

Romney’s slogging his way through Friendship Hell. Grinding out close wins in Michigan and Ohio, having to hammer out hotly-contested wins state by state by state.

Compare this to four years ago, when John McCain couldn’t bring himself to appeal to conservatives during the primary at all. He made his appeal by nominating Sarah Palin as his VP, and that put some gas in his tank for a while, but McCain’s inability/refusal to ingratiate himself with the base of the party he was nominated to represent during the primaries meant that he never did know how to generate enthusiasm among GOP voters – and his people never got the understanding of the part of the electorate they needed to turn out to win in order to craft the message that would serve in that regard.

Does Romney have that yet? No. But he seems like he might be learning. He’s better on tax policy. He’s better on the budget. He’s talking about Cut, Cap and Tax, which is something we haven’t heard enough of in this campaign despite the fact that when Cut, Cap and Tax was rolled out last year by the Republicans in Congress it was quite popular and probably would be more so now. He’s also sharpening his message on economics and energy.

So while Romney is looking like the guy, let’s not root for this to be over anytime soon. Make him earn it all the way to June if he has to. Make him develop as a candidate.

Santorum should stay in. Gingrich should stay in. Paul should stay in. Romney should have to work to earn their supporters’ grudging acceptance. They’re going to have to accept him anyway, if he’s the nominee; the idea of another four years of Obama is too horrible for any Republican to countenance. But McCain got killed not just because Obama was able to mobilize Democrat constituencies; he got killed because he wasn’t able to mobilize his own. McCain, had he understood the voters he had to have on his side, would have seen the TARP bill as a disaster and opposed it on behalf of the majority of the population who don’t support Wall Street bailouts, and he would have opposed it as a masterstroke within which he could finally stand before the American people and forcefully deny the legitimacy of the “McCain only offers four more years of Bush” line Obama was offering.

McCain was and still is a pompous, arrogant and most of all dense politician. He probably never would have had the political dexterity to take a chance like opposing TARP (it would have passed anyway; McCain’s opposition would have been pure populist politics). But he certainly didn’t have that dexterity coming out of the 2008 campaign; he didn’t have to acquire it. Everybody else in the race basically collapsed that year.

Romney can’t be McCain. If he’s pompous, arrogant and dense he’s going to find a way to lose – he’s still nearly 800 delegates short of the magic number (they’re estimating he’s at 385 as of tonight). And while having Santorum and Gingrich splitting the bulk of the Non-Romney vote has been a saving grace for Romney so far, it won’t stay that way forever because those two are political survivors of the first order, and they’ve both shown an ability to live off the land like few presidential candidates have ever managed. One of them might drop out, moreover, and if that happens a pompous, arrogant and dense Mitt Romney will lose late primaries by the truckful to a Last Remaining Non-Romney. But because of the battle he’s already had to fight, Romney is already a better candidate than McCain was. As he said tonight, he’s learning from the voters.

He’ll learn more and he’ll be better still. Does that make him good? No. Not yet. But he has a chance to be. He needs to be bolder, more passionate and more positive – the Romney camp shows some signs of recognizing that carpet-bombing Santorum with negative ads won’t work like it did on Gingrich early on. But he’s moved in those directions.

Santorum isn’t finished. But he needed Ohio. And he’s bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. Trashing JFK when you’re trying to attract Catholic Democrats in the North isn’t evidence of a prime-time candidate, and letting the media define you as an arch-conservative culture warrior  when the election is about the size and scope of the federal government doesn’t indicate strength.

And Gingrich will win states. If he can take Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas, he might be able to get Santorum out of the race like he’s been hoping to do since Florida. That’s his best shot, and it’s not impossible. But to do that Newt has to show an ability not to self-destruct or allow that fountain of ideas in his head to spatter all over his nice suit, and that’s an ability he hasn’t shown to date.

Ultimately, this is Romney’s. But he’s not good enough yet to deserve it. The race must go on if he’s going to become the candidate this party needs.

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