By the GOP delegate numbers, Romney was the winner on Tuesday. He captured more delegates in the four contests — in Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii and American Samoa — than Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul. He added slightly to his overall delegate lead, which remains substantial.
As they say in Boston, he was “executing against the plan.” But that plan appears to have Romney slogging forward slowly at best, rather than gaining momentum against Santorum, who is at a huge disadvantage in terms of money and infrastructure and who wasn’t considered a likely contender only a few months ago.
For Romney, victory one week is followed by defeat another. He came from behind to win in Michigan and Ohio, but the margins in both states were slim. In terms of perceptions of Romney’s candidacy, losses in Alabama and Mississippi (however narrowly, and even though he wasn’t expected to win) have trumped a few extra delegates out of Hawaii and American Samoa.
That’s partly because front-runners aren’t supposed to finish third in states where they’ve competed hard and have heavily outspent their opponents. Notwithstanding that the South is inhospitable territory for a Massachusetts Republican, the performance reinforced the reality that a sizable portion of the GOP base still hasn’t warmed to him. Does anyone think Romney looks like a stronger potential nominee today than he did on Tuesday morning?
In claiming that the math favors them, Romney’s forces are arguing inevitability as a way to divert attention from regional or demographic weakness. They’re saying that, whatever some Republicans and media critics say about his candidacy, Romney will be the nominee because neither Santorum nor anyone else can win.
All eventual nominees suffer setbacks along the way. In his primary campaign, Obama lost many states to Hillary Rodham Clinton, including general-election battlegrounds such as Ohio and Pennsylvania and solid-blue states such as New York and California. He won all of those easily in the fall. He lost the Florida primary — which didn’t count — to Clinton and kept his name off the ballot in Michigan, where he might have lost as well.
So has Romney really taken a page from Obama’s 2008 playbook? It’s understandable that some suggest he has. But the two cases are fundamentally different. Obama seized on the inevitability of the math to turn the tables on Clinton. Romney has reached for the delegate argument almost as a political lifeline.
Three big differences stand out. First, Romney is trying to defeat Santorum. That’s hardly equivalent to Obama running against Clinton. Newcomer Obama was competing with the most formidable brand in Democratic politics. Romney, who is running for a second time, is trying to put away one of the weakest fields in recent memory.