Presidential Race
7:58 am
Wed March 14, 2012

After Santorum Wins, Romney Hopes To Regain Edge

Originally published on Wed March 14, 2012 1:02 pm

For Mitt Romney, the string of victories that would lock up the Republican nomination for president remains elusive.

Last week, Romney looked more or less inevitable to many political observers, thanks to his victories in six of the 10 states that voted on Super Tuesday.

But since then, the former Massachusetts governor has gone on a losing streak. He lost caucuses in Kansas, which voted on Saturday, and primaries in both Alabama and Mississippi, which voted Tuesday.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won all three of those races.

"Part of Romney's problem is that there were some polls suggesting he could win Mississippi, if not both [Southern states]," says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "He suffered from failing to beat the point spread."

Nevertheless, Romney managed to increase his substantial delegate lead on Tuesday, thanks to a roughly three-way split with Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the two Southern states and his victories in caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa.

Romney likes his chances in the next high-profile contest on the calendar, the Illinois primary on March 20. He's enjoying a polling lead there, and Restore Our Future, the superPAC that is backing his campaign, is just starting to unleash yet another million-dollar ad campaign aimed primarily at attacking Santorum.

Pat Brady, the GOP state chairman in Illinois, is supporting Romney and predicting a win. Still, he concedes that Santorum's latest victories mean that his state "will be a real battle."

The Illinois Landscape

In Illinois, Romney will face the same regional challenges that have limited him to narrow victories in other industrial states. He is expected to do well in Chicago and its suburbs, but will likely struggle downstate.

"It looks to me as if Santorum will do fairly well in central and southern Illinois — regions with significant numbers of conservative voters," says Jim Nowlan, a former state legislator who is now a senior fellow at the University of Illinois.

That's the conventional wisdom in the state, and it's borne out by polls that show Santorum leading in most counties outside the Chicagoland area. However, the majority of the state population resides in and around Chicago.

Many Republicans in that area are conservative and sympathetic to the Tea Party, particularly in the exurbs. But, because Illinois will award most of its delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district — all but a handful of which are clustered around Chicago — Romney could take more delegates even if Santorum carries the state.

As in some other states, Santorum's campaign failed to qualify a full slate of delegates, meaning he has no chance to win 10 of the 54 delegates at stake next week. That speaks to Santorum's lack of organization in Illinois, says Brady, the state GOP chair.

He points out that, despite the fact that one of Santorum's main claims for himself as a candidate is his ability to appeal to voters in industrial states that will be battlegrounds in the fall, he has yet to win any of them.

"We have a full slate of delegates, and we intend to deliver as many as we can to Gov. Romney," says Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, Romney's state campaign chairman.

A Set Of Spoilers

Given the bumpy nature of the race so far, the remaining Republican candidates are hungry for clarity. They seem to believe that would best be achieved by other candidates dropping out.

"Sen. Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign," Romney said Tuesday on CNN.

For his part, Santorum says his latest victories show the nomination struggle is now a two-man race, with his campaign openly calling on Gingrich to drop out.

Despite losing two Southern states that his own campaign acknowledged were crucial to his hopes (Gingrich's appeal has been largely regional, with his sole primary wins coming in South Carolina and Georgia), Gingrich remains defiant.

His campaign released a memo Tuesday outlining its strategy going forward and declaring that the Louisiana caucuses, which will be held on March 24, represent only the campaign's "halftime."

In his concession speech Tuesday, Gingrich reiterated his plans to campaign onward to the GOP national convention in Tampa, saying the "elite media's effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed."

Referring to Romney's showings in Alabama and Mississippi, Gingrich said, "If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner."

Converting Hope To Reality

But many commentators believe that Gingrich's continuing presence in the race only serves to aid Romney. Santorum's task would be much easier if he didn't have to split the party's sizable "anti-Romney" vote with Gingrich.

"If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said [Louisiana] ... is a Gingrich state, but I think that's changed a little bit," says George P. Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "Santorum is more viable."

Knowing the Southern states would always be a struggle, Romney spent much of his day Tuesday campaigning in Missouri. Appearing at an outdoor rally in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, Romney never mentioned his GOP opponents.

Instead, he devoted his remarks to criticizing President Obama for his handling of the economy, health care and the military. Exit polls have suggested that the "electability" argument has helped Romney pick up late-deciding voters in several key contests.

"Romney is trying to make the aspiration the reality by ignoring the intraparty competition, and also trying to raise the feeling that Santorum would be the less-than-ideal general election candidate," says Marvin Overby, a University of Missouri political scientist.

Can't Win For Losing

Romney was in Missouri looking to win support in the state's caucuses, which are mostly being held Saturday. Santorum won a 30 percentage point victory in Missouri's primary last month, but the results of that contest were nonbinding, meaning delegates are actually at stake at the caucuses under way now.

But Missouri's delegate selection process is so convoluted that actual delegate counts won't be known until after party meetings in April and June. That delay could play to Romney's advantage, Overby says. If he does have the nomination more or less sewn up by that time, many of the delegates will move his way.

"That plays into Romney's strength as the candidate who always sort of chugs along and is not having to build a campaign on a wave of intense passion after a win that peters out," Overby says.

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