Mitt Romney’s Illinois win was so impressive that neither Rick Santorum nor the press corps bothered to spin the results. Whatever the verb — “crushed,” “rolled,” or “clobbered” — there was rare consensus that Romney had finally crossed the threshold from “weak front-runner” to ”presumptive nominee.” Both the extent of the victory and the reminder that Santorum is essentially a well-funded Mike Huckabee (winning only in rural areas or among very conservative evangelicals) have, it seems, forced the chattering class to adjust its analysis to fit reality.
On the delegate front, with a number of Illinois delegates to be decided at a state convention (where Romney supporters will dominate), Romney now has 563 delegates. He’s won 55 percent of the delegates awarded to date, which is impressive considering the multi-candidate field. He needs to win only 46 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination. He has won the votes of more than 4 million voters, well over a million more than his closest challenger.
Last night Romney’s top strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom, was asked on CNN if he’d advise the other candidates to get out. Sounding like grief counselor (understanding that Romney’s rivals must go from denial to acceptance of their fate), he had this exchange with Piers Morgan:
PIERS MORGAN: Is it time seriously for Newt Gingrich and/or Ron Paul or both of them to consider stepping down?
ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Look, that’s a very personal decision. I’m not going to make that for them. I understand about the emotion and the hard work and the sweat that goes into a campaign, they have been at it for a long time. Both Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — they’re decent people. They have run honorable campaigns. At some point the reality is going to set in that Mitt is the all but certain nominee. I can tell you what Mitt Romney did four years ago when he found himself in the similar situation running against John McCain. After Super Tuesday, John McCain certainly didn’t have the delegates to become the nominee, but he was on track to get those delegates and Mitt Romney made the decision — and it was a difficult one — to step aside. And he stepped aside because he thought it was good for the country. We were at war in Iraq at the time, and he wanted to give John McCain the time to rally the party and unite behind his candidacy.”
MORGAN: Well, from what you’re saying, are you suggesting that they all should stand aside now? Is tonight a tipping point do you think in this race? Should all three of the candidates, given the number of delegates your man has, should they stand aside? We’ve got 20 seconds.
FEHRNSTROM: Well, there is no deus ex machina that’s coming down from the heavens that’s going to change the math of the race. Look, Mitt Romney has the most delegates. The reason he has Mitt Romney has the most delegates is because he has the most votes and the reason for that is because he has the best pro-jobs message. Each candidate will have to make these decisions on their own.
As for Rick Santorum, he seems determined to at least make it to his home state’s primary on April 24. That might be emotionally satisfying, but given that Pennsylvania, like Illinois, has major metropolitan areas and heavily populated suburbs, it is quite possible Romney could win. And that, echoing Santorum’s wipeout in 2006, would be a devastating embarrassment and impair whatever future aspirations he might have. (“He lost his own state — twice!”)
In some sense it matters less and less when Santorum gets out. If Romney continues to rack up big wins, he’ll obliterate the impression that he hasn’t closed the deal with the base. Sure, there are bitter dead-enders who insist Santorum is still in the fight and who are certain if the voters only understood that Romneycare has an individual mandate Romney’s support would crumble. But these will, if they haven’t already, be seen as cranks.
As we’ve said before, by the end of a presidential primary, the winner seems more polished and presidential than at the beginning of the contest. This is both a factor of how we view him and the shot of confidence a candidate gets after all the elections, speeches, debates and interviews. It is a grueling process, but in the end the winner is elevated. The press and Democratic operatives would have us believe that Romney has been diminished by the process. In fact, as last night demonstrated, quite the opposite is true.