Mitt Romney confirmed his status as the prohibitive front-runner in the GOP presidential race Saturday with a win in the Nevada caucuses.
But Romney’s apparently large margin of victory may say more about his opponents than his own candidacy.
While Romney’s first-place finish was never really in doubt, the lack of traction from the two men vying to be the top non-Romney candidate in the race was perhaps the biggest development.
Newt Gingrich, whose campaign was riding high after its win in the South Carolina primary just two weeks ago, has fallen quickly since then.
Almost instantly after the South Carolina contest Jan. 21, Romney’s campaign regained its position atop the polls and delivered a double-digit win in Florida.
Four days later in Nevada, he obliterated Gingrich.
Now, the fact that Gingrich finished so far behind Romney might seem forgivable. This is a state, after all, where eventual 2008 nominee John McCain finished a distant third to Romney, behind even Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), with 13 percent.
Gingrich still may finish behind Paul himself. But while McCain didn’t seriously compete in the Silver State four years ago, Gingrich has been in Nevada since Wednesday, and his performance has been pretty disastrous. Basically every day this week, there has been something to suggest a campaign that’s not really ready for prime time — be it scheduling snafus, incorrectly leaking that Donald Trump would endorse his campaign, or the candidate apparently being unaware of a pretty significant jobs report on Friday.
And in fact, this is the second state where that’s happened.
In Florida, Gingrich stumbled through two debate performances, and his decision to attack Romney for being anti-immigrant backfired badly. His campaign behind-the-scenes wasn’t getting it done either, as Sasha Issenberg reported Wednesday.
So Gingrich is now two states past his big win in South Carolina, and he’s given virtually no indication that he’s capable of running the kind of delegate-accumulating, long-term campaign that he keeps promising. That’s not to say he can’t; just that he hasn’t shown that he can.
The other candidate who might have a chance to defeat Romney, Rick Santorum, has gotten even less momentum following him being declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses, finishing third in every state since then and likely fourth tonight.
Even when Gingrich fell back to earth in Florida, Santorum couldn’t pick up the pieces and saw his share of the vote remain basically unchanged.
Nevada, if you’re counting, is the second straight state where Santorum won’t be present on election night. Instead, he’s focusing on Tuesday’s contests in Colorado and — mostly amazingly — in Missouri.
The fact that Santorum is putting any emphasis on the Missouri primary, where no delegates are at stake and Gingrich isn’t on the ballot, shows that he’s fighting for traction.
The strategy is perhaps sound; if he competes with Romney head-to-head in Missouri, after all, he can argue that he would be the better anti-Romney candidate and hopefully attract a conservative base that has yet to coalesce around Gingrich.
But the payoff is pretty minimal for Santorum even if it works out, and the cost is pretty steep if it doesn’t. People aren’t likely to pay much attention to a Missouri contest where Romney isn’t really trying and where nothing is at stake, and if Romney still cruises to victory, Santorum’s electability argument is totally shot.
Gingrich and Santorum are running out of time in their quest to be taken seriously as Romney foes. Losing is one thing; losing badly without any signs of life is much worse.
And that’s the biggest takeaway from today’s Nevada caucuses.