I wish I could give you some excitement, but, alas, I have to give the truth. The Republican race remained Tuesday night where it’s been for a while now: Mitt Romney has locked up the nomination pending some unexpected jolt, but he can’t quite generate enough momentum to knock out Rick Santorum and therefore move on to the general election campaign.
First, the headline. Santorum wins both Alabama and Mississippi, with Romney apparently finishing third, albeit a close third, in each (with just enough votes to count that he still has an outside shot at second). Then, the full news: Based on the rough estimates by various delegate counters, it appears that by the end of the night — after Hawaii and, of all things, American Samoa — that the delegates will be roughly split, with Santorum and Romney about even and Newt Gingrich finishing a bit behind them.
Gingrich’s election-night speech was all about going on to the convention. But the truth is that Tuesday night was really his last shot at having any reason to remain in the race beyond vanity or, perhaps, a business plan. His “Southern strategy” is a joke after losses in Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi; he’s won just two states, and he hasn’t even managed a strong second in very many others. Will he stay in anyway? Well, that’s up to him; we can understand the incentives and his situation, but not how he reacts to all of that.
He would presumably get out rapidly if most conservative leaders demanded it. (Newt may not mind getting defeated, but he surely would mind if they threatened his speaking spots on Fox News, conservative conferences, and other entryways to money and status.) And yet that would most likely only happen as part of a strategy to rally around Santorum, and we’ve already seen that there’s very little interest among conservative leaders to do so. I certainly saw nothing tonight to indicate that will change anytime soon.
So, I hate to say the same thing I said last week and every other week going back to New Hampshire, but the truth is that when the night is over and all the delegates are allocated…yes, once again, Romney did what he had to do to move another step closer to the nomination. True, there’s nothing here to trigger a stampede for him, but there’s nothing here to change the basic dynamic of the race. If you believe — which I mostly don’t — that it’s a disadvantage for the out-party to settle on their nominee relatively late in the cycle, then this was surely bad news for the Republicans, since it’s now likely that the contested phase of the nomination battle will go on at least until early April. And perhaps Santorum can force Romney to adopt even more policy positions that will indeed hurt him in November. Other than that, however, the race remains where it was, which should keep Romney reasonably happy.