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Posted at 08:45 AM ET, 02/08/2012

Rick Santorum redux

Rick Santorum is back! Is Herman Cain next? Do you think Rick Perry is kicking himself for dropping out of this race? Paging Sarah Palin!!!

The keepers of political conventional wisdom are sobbing in a bar next to the gamblers who took the Pats and gave the points. Nothing is deterministic in sports or politics. This is why they play the game (and hold the election).

Yes, those were beauty contests last night, nonbinding, ineffectual, pointless in the strict sense. But how would you feel if you were Mitt Romney this morning? You picture him yanking the bell cord and wondering why no one appears with the coffee and the papers. He was trounced in two of the three states and lost the third even though everyone assumed he’d win. He didn’t exactly compete in them, but still. Where’s the Romney love?

Romney now has to go after Rick Santorum, but Santorum doesn’t have baggage like Newt Gingrich. Santorum’s baggage is the carry-on kind. He’s never been drummed out of the leadership, never took millions from Freddie Mac, never had a blow-up in his personal life. He’s uncalculated, steady, long-winded, wonky, and sweater-vest earnest.

Romney’s main argument against a Santorum candidacy may be that he, Romney, has more money to compete nationally in expensive media markets. But, um, this is not an argument. Wealth is a strategic advantage but not an intellectual or ideological virtue. Romney right now has to be very careful that he doesn’t look like a spoiled kid who didn’t get enough presents on his birthday.

Romney still has to make a case for himself, and not merely fire spitballs at Santorum. (For the sake of argument let’s assume Gingrich is now deflated permanently and Ron Paul remains Ron Paul.) Never mind that this thing was supposed to be wrapped up by now, with Romney the nominee. Never mind that some of us declared Romney the winner after New Hampshire, or was it after the 2010 midterms? The race now goes to Super Tuesday, a month away — and maybe beyond. Romney has the lead, and the delegate math favors him — and he’s still the overwhelming favorite at InTrade — but he has to do better next month than he did last night.

Once again we learn that voters, not pundits, not pollsters, not strategists, not establishment politicos, decide elections. This past year has seen one poll after another that turned out to be relatively meaningless, or at least deceptive. That doesn’t mean they’re not useful. But no one should assume that a poll in early February will tell us how the nation will vote in November. Remember, a presidential election is a collection of winner-take-all state elections (ask President Gore about this).

Just watch: It’ll be close. And it’ll come down — again — to a handful of very closely contested states, including the obvious ones, Ohio and Florida. Pennsylvania and Michigan have go to blue for a Democrat to win, and a Republican has to win the upper South and paint Virginia and North Carolina red again. They’ll be fighting over tiny states like New Hampshire and New Mexico. Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado are in play. Expect protracted campaigning in the glaciated terrain of the upper midwest. The battle of the Glacier Belt.

But who knows. I’m consistently wrong about everything.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that the Democratic nominee will be Obama.

More on Rick Santorum’s sweep

Rogers: Does Santorum’s win spell the end for Gingrich?

Petri: Santorum, beyond the sweater vest

Rubin: The momentum swings again

By  |  08:45 AM ET, 02/08/2012

 
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