With McCain-hate boiling, why isn’t Mitt airing attack ads? The script writes itself. “John McCain: The only candidate approved by amnesty shills in both parties.”

Politico has a theory.

Just as Romney hurriedly pivoted to an anti-Washington message in the four days between Iowa and New Hampshire, he has just a few days now to slow the McCain momentum and paint his rival as unacceptable.

But he’s apparently declined to do so via television ads, and there is not enough time to do it through direct mail. Romney is sending a barrage of robo-calls into key Super Tuesday states, but that likely won’t be enough.

McCain, meanwhile, is picking up a slew of train-leaving-the-station endorsements each day and is increasingly seen as the inevitable nominee by many party regulars…

All of this might persuade Romney to go down without a last-minute, scorched-earth barrage aimed at his party’s likely nominee.

A graceful exit, this thinking goes, could smooth the path to a second presidential run that many close to Romney believe he would seek.

The other possibility is that he’s planning a hard slog through February and March and doesn’t want to get too nasty yet. Karl reminds us that 45% of the delegates will still be in play after Tuesday, so McCain ain’t clinching anything this week. Except … if Mitt gets creamed, he’s in the Giuliani-esque position of being still technically alive but facing a tidal wave of momentum with nothing to save him except the base’s animus to McCain, which will have already been proved two times a loser after Florida and Super Tuesday. What is he waiting for? What are these already obnoxious numbers going to look like by, say, Valentine’s Day if Maverick rolls 48 hours from now?

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Even the good news, like the fact that Mitt now leads in California in Zogby’s poll, isn’t all that good. For one thing, he trails in McCain by 7-9 points in the three other recent polls. For another thing, California’s not winner-take-all; all the lead means is that Romney may pick up a few delegates more there than Maverick. He’s behind in the bellwethers too.

Exit question: So why isn’t he pulling out all the stops? Any theories? Mull it over while you listen to the new Instacast, in which Mitt reiterates his commitment to gun rights and the free market but fails to tap that rich, sweet vitriol towards McCain which we all think runs through the conservative body politic but which, alas, may not. No matter how many high-profile cover stories about his basic jerkiness try to get it pumping.

Update: Indeed. It’ll be fun to watch. Almost as fun as the inevitable Fred endorsement of Maverick.

[A]s to the Mitt 2012 point, the moment he is no longer the great conservative hope to you all, and has also proven out a loser, most of you are going to drop him down the memory hole and hope he never shows his pretty head again. Your hatred of McCain is a hundred times stronger than your love for Mitt, and you’d give anything, probably including your souls, for a well-financed, energetic, and ambitious movement conservative without Mitt’s weaknesses.

Mitt knows that – and you might think that it would increase the odds of his going nuclear, if this is his last chance, but that’s where you’re wrong again. Because as soon as Mitt is no longer the great conservative hope, I’m pretty confident he’s going to drop you guys, too, since he knows that his only hope of sustained viability within the party and the other circles he’s at home in is to get on the team.

Update: InstaGlenn e-mails to say he’s wondering whether Mitt’s run this year isn’t a modern analog to Reagan’s failed run in 1976 against Ford. The “conservative upstart versus establishment moderate” parallel does track, but (a) needless to say, Romney’s conservative cred isn’t anything like Reagan’s; (b) Reagan was a beloved figure within the party whereas Romney, er, isn’t; and (c) Romney’s not tasked with upending an incumbent president, merely a centrist senator despised by much of the base who was left for dead politically last year. He’s going to face recriminations for not being able to stop someone as weak as McCain, especially given his financial advantage. And whereas the ’76 run largely cleared the way for Reagan in 1980, he can expect another 12 rounds with Huckabee in 2012 and, quite possibly, Bobby Jindal.