“Can either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum meaningfully advance beyond the ideological and demographic beachheads of support they have secured in the marathon slog for the Republican presidential nomination?…

“While Romney has faced considerable criticism for his inability to consolidate the party’s most conservative vanguard, Santorum has demonstrated a parallel inability to penetrate the party’s more moderate, affluent and economy-focused wing.

“Unless Romney or Santorum can break this pattern, the remaining primaries and caucuses will turn less on the jousting between them than on the underlying demographics of each state as it takes its turn on the calendar. And if that pattern holds, Romney would retain his delegate advantage over Santorum and Gingrich, but likely confront a close call on attracting enough delegates for a first-ballot majority while also facing enough losses in conservative-leaning Southern and heartland states to sustain doubts about his ability to mobilize the GOP base.”

***

“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.

“Game-changing events are not easy to come by, of course. But Mr. Santorum’s campaign does not seem so interested in maximizing his chance at achieving one. His travel schedule is one such example: Mr. Santorum spent part of last week in Puerto Rico, and will be spending part of Sunday in Louisiana, rather than focusing on Illinois, a state where polls and demographics give Mr. Romney an edge but only a modest one…

“For Mr. Santorum to have a shot at winning the nomination, he will need to poll at least 5 or 10 points better across the board than he has so far — and to do so consistently enough that those polls translate into votes and then delegates.”

***

“McCain added that Romney, who lost two key Southern primaries on Tuesday, was ‘improving dramatically as a candidate.’

“The 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said Romney, whom McCain is backing for the presidency, had been hurt by the revamped GOP nominating process where many early contests awarded their delegates proportionally, delaying Romney’s ability to deliver a knock-out blow to his rivals.

“‘In any campaign before him we had winner take all, in winner take all you would assume those numbers would be significantly different,’ McCain said of Romney’s delegate totals.”

***

“‘I think the process is healthy,’ Gillespie said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ ‘I think a competitive primary is going to result in a nominee who is stronger at the end of the process.’

“Gillespie, a supporter of Mitt Romney, said he believes the extended nominating season is sharpening the former Massachusetts governor for a head-to-head contest with President Barack Obama later this year.

“‘I think (Romney) is the likely nominee. I think the challenge he is facing right now is making him a better candidate,’ Gillespie told CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.”

***

“If Mitt Romney does finally wrestle the nomination to the ground, and then loses to Obama, conservatives will blame the loss on his alleged moderation. The right wing take-away will be to try to nominate a true ideologue in 2016.

“But if someone like Rick Santorum gets the nomination in an upset, the party faithful will get to experience the adrenaline rush of going off a cliff together, like Thelma and Louise — elation followed by an electoral thud

“Giving conservative activists everything they want in a presidential nominee would ultimately be clarifying for the Republican Party. It would break the fever that has afflicted American politics turning fellow citizens against one another. It would restore a sense of balance, recognizing that it is unwise to systemically ignore the 40 percent of American voters who identify themselves as independent or the 35 percent who are centrist. After all, a successful political party requires both wings to fly.

“There’s nothing like losing 40 states to refocus the mind.”

***

“‘We’re not making plans for a brokered convention,’ [RNC chair Reince] Priebus told host Bob Schieffer on ‘Face the Nation.’…

“‘Guess what: A tough primary, a little bit of drama actually helped Barack Obama,’ Priebus said. ‘We put America to sleep with our primary four years ago. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton nearly gouged each other’s eyes out.

“‘What happened? He won.'”

***

“‘I don’t think anybody in their right mind thinks that this way the primaries have played out has been good for the Republican chances,’ Barbour said on ABC News’ ‘This Week.’ ‘But what to me is remarkable is it hasn’t helped Obama much. If this Republican nick-nick-nick-nick kind of primary is really hurting, he ought to be soaring. Well, he’s not soaring.'”

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“If Mr. Santorum cannot reach that number, he was asked on Sunday on CNN’s ‘State of the Union with Candy Crowley,’ would he stay in the race and try to deny Mr. Romney the nomination?

“Mr. Santorum did not answer the question. He quibbled about the actual number of delegates that each candidate has. Asked again if he would go for a brokered convention, he said that he was in the race to win and that conservatives wanted to nominate a conservative…

“Mr. Santorum’s demurring on the matter suggests some concern about how the public might react if he openly advocated for a brokered convention. Such a situation might be entertaining for the media, but it would entrust the decision-making to bosses in backrooms, not to the people at the ballot box.”