It’s clear that Mitt Romney needs more help, but he may be powerless to get it soon. He won a majority of the 10 states that held Republican presidential contests on Super Tuesday, and he captured the most delegates by far. He took Ohio, the biggest prize of all, although only by a whisker. By many measures, that’s a good night. But it was not enough, seemingly, to hasten an end to the long, negative fight for the party’s nomination.
Romney’s situation has created a debilitating standoff within the GOP hierarchy. The former Massachusetts governor needs more leaders in the party to step forward on his behalf. Many elected officials won’t do that until he wins more decisively. That may not be possible under the rules that govern this race.
Romney may be considered the inevitable nominee — and to many Republicans the strongest candidate in the field to take on President Obama. But at a moment when he could use some strong verbal backing from those who may have to run with him in the fall, he is hearing only occasional voices.
Romney has far more endorsements from elected officials than any of his GOP rivals. He continues to pick them up a few at a time, but he still lacks the critical mass of support he needs to change the tone, if not the length, of the race. He can’t amass the 1,144 delegates needed to cinch the nomination for many weeks unless he can convince Republicans that the sooner the battle ends, the better it will be for him and them.
Elected officials have made it obvious that they fear the consequences of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich becoming the nominee. When Gingrich was at his highest point, the establishment turned against him — trashing him publicly and privately. He is still seething about the treatment he received from many of his former colleagues. But the antipathy toward Gingrich did not produce a groundswell for Romney.
For the past month, Santorum has been Romney’s main rival. The former senator has proved to be a stubbornly difficult opponent for Romney, with his ability to appeal to evangelicals, tea party activists and working-class voters.
But he has been as prone to making verbal mistakes as Romney, if not more so. Concerns about the impact of a Santorum nomination are nearly as widespread among elected officials as they were about Gingrich, if more muted. Still, the movement toward Romney has been notably slow.
On Wednesday, Romney picked up the endorsement of Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.). Over the weekend, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) announced their support. He already has the backing of Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia.
But elected officials are risk-averse. They know where the heart of the GOP lies today and aren’t eager to go against it. They also know that party bosses don’t exist anymore. Many of those on the sidelines would like some signs from Romney that he is breaking away, according to one official who supports the former governor.
In some ways, this must be baffling — or discouraging — to Romney and his advisers. They laid out Wednesday what will eventually be accepted as reality, which is that Santorum and Gingrich have no obvious path to win the delegates needed to capture the nomination.
Santorum, Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) collectively may be able to keep Romney away from that number until the last contests of the year. But only Romney can credibly claim any likelihood of reaching that threshold without help from the others. He was blunt in saying Wednesday morning that there will be no brokered convention in Tampa in August.
Romney’s campaign officials must wonder what is being asked of them. They can look at the events of the past few months and write a story that runs counter to the prevailing narrative. They can argue, as they have, that no nominee runs the table, no nominee goes undefeated. They can say, as they do, that all front-runners stumble, that they are always tested — although perhaps not in quite the same way as Romney.
The reality is that Romney has not lost a must-win contest in the nomination battle — which is one measure of a successful candidacy. He did better than people thought he would in Iowa. New Hampshire was a must win, and he did win. He cruised to victory there. Florida was a must win. He routed Gingrich there. Michigan and Ohio were both must wins, and he won them, although not impressively.
Romney’s weaknesses have been duly highlighted. He isn’t connecting with many Republicans. He can’t consolidate the most conservative voters in his party. He struggles in parts of the South. His gaffes have made him seem out of touch. He is struggling against weak opposition, despite his superior resources. He is winning ugly by pounding his opponents with negative ads rather than by inspiring voters.
But he and his advisers have shown more resilience than they sometimes are credited for. When he’s behind, he has found a way to win. Gingrich was ahead in Florida after winning South Carolina. Santorum led in Michigan and Ohio but Romney eked out victories. He was trailing in Washington state and came back to win caucuses there last Saturday.
His critics argue that he never should have fallen behind an opponent such as Santorum, that the success of his rivals in winning states or coming close is a function of Romney’s weakness, not their strength. Romney needs to change that view in the coming weeks, although the immediate calendar — caucuses in Kansas and Hawaii, and primaries in Alabama and Mississippi — will afford him little opportunity to do so.
That’s why he needs help from others, who can begin to spread the argument that his advisers made Wednesday about the delegate math, or who can affect the money flowing toward Gingrich and Santorum and their super PACs.
None of this is easy, and it may not even be possible. Who can persuade Sheldon Adelson to stop writing multimillion-dollar checks to Gingrich’s super PAC? Who can slow the tide of grass-roots money going to Santorum? Only Romney winning might begin to make all that happen. That’s what many Republicans are waiting to see. For now, Romney appears to be mostly on his own.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.