Today’s fun trivia question: Which Republican presidential candidate has won the most contests?
Answer: Rick Santorum (4).Wrap your mind around that one. He may still appear to be a long-shot nominee, given his shoestring national budget and skeletal ground game, but, at minimum, his hat trick last night in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado is bound to revive Republican establishment concerns about Mitt Romney – namely, the alleged front-runner’s ability to enthuse the conservative base and unite the party without further bloodshed.What the latest results demonstrate – particularly in Colorado, which Romney won handily in 2008 – is that the base is still following its heart (Santorum says he’s the authentic true believer) rather than thinking with its head (Romney says he’s the most electable option, the sole guy with an organization built to go the distance). Which means that Romney, at the very least, has a nagging PR problem. His campaign is built on the theme of Inevitability; three losses in one night suggest that the base is still not ready to buy in.The Inevitability theme is actually the problem. There’s not much romance to it. Indeed, when the Romney people realized early yesterday that a bad night was in the offing, they sought to pre-spin the defeats by touting their man’s Inevitability. In a memo, political director Rich Beeson said that Romney is “the only candidate with the organizational strength” to secure the requisite number of delegates nationwide. He said that “our candidate has the resources and organization to keep winning.”Those lines appeared in the second paragraph. In the fifth paragraph, he said that “organization and resources are key,” and that “we have the resources and organization.” In the ninth paragraph, he said that competing in March, with its multiple primaries, will require “resources” and “organization” – which only Romney possesses, because (10th paragraph) Santorum and Newt Gingrich are plagued with “resource challenges.”You see the problem. Romney’s basic pitch is “Vote for me, my organization is best.” That’s not a very sexy message for the impassioned party base. Maybe the grassroots conservatives will come around in the end, but not now.(And gee, I can’t imagine why so many conservatives dismiss Romney as inauthentic. On Monday, he attacked Planned Parenthood; 10 years ago, he sought the endorsement of Planned Parenthood. Today, he’s a foe of choice; back then, he declared that “when asked will I preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose, I make an unequivocal answer: Yes.”
Romney’s Tuesday memo concluded by saying that, regardless of any setbacks along the way, he alone had the resources to win a “methodical, long-haul campaign.” Hey, can this guy quicken the pulse, or what? His basic message: “I may be plugging along at only 15 miles an hour, but I’m the only car with four wheels.” The Santorum hat trick (to borrow the hockey term) is a rebuke to the methodical machine.Granted, it’s important not to overstate last night’s results. Past presidential nominees often hit speed bumps on the road to the summer coronation. Barack Obama, as a front runner, lost a number of primaries to Hillary Clinton. In late February of 2000, George W. Bush was jolted (however briefly) by a John McCain victory in Michigan. Bill Clinton in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 both lost a string of late contests to the same guy, Jerry Brown. In short, primary season voters frequently exhibit buyer’s remorse. And, with respect to last night, let’s remember that the Missouri primary was just a “beauty contest” that did not award any delegates.On the other hand, Missouri is an autumn swing state that seems cool to the Inevitability candidate. One February poll actually shows Romney tied in Missouri with Obama; that alone should alarm Team Romney, because Missouri has never warmed to Obama. Maybe it’s no big deal that Romney finished second to Santorum in Missouri, but losing by 31 percentage points should be worrisome. And Minnesota (home of Romney surrogate Tim “T-Paw” Pawlenty) was almost as bad: Romney finished third, trailing Santorum by 28 points.All told, Santorum has managed to mess with the Romney narrative. If nothing else, he changes the conversation for the next three weeks, until Arizona and Michigan (presumably) cast their fortunes with Mitt. Conservative donors may well be inspired to fund Santorum’s next round, the punditocracy may anoint him as the true conservative alternative (as opposed to the flailing Gingrich), and it’s a cinch bet that Romney will use his ample resources to rain down negative ads on Santorum’s head (a perverse compliment).Any Republican – most notably, Romney – who pined for a swift resolution is surely disappointed this morning. This party race still has a ways to go.
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