Romney Wins Even When He Loses, But For How Long?

“[Rick Santorum] basically went one-on-one in Michigan and lost, one-on-one in Ohio and lost. I’m not so sure it’s to his net advantage in this race right now to allow, if Romney could take all of his money and focus it on negative ads on one person.”

-- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich explaining to Bret Baier why it benefits Santorum to have Gingrich remain in the Republican presidential race.

Despite a lackluster pair of third-place finishes for Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s primaries Alabama and Mississippi, the Republican frontrunner managed to still start today with an additional six delegates in his lead over rival Rick Santorum.

This is owed to continuing dominance in the South Pacific by Romney, the Douglas MacArthur of Republican contenders. Romney took all nine delegates in American Samoa and overawed his opponents in Hawaii, more than offsetting his margin of defeat in Dixie.

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There are still 16 delegates to be sorted out, but thanks to close races in the South and proportional delegate allocation, Romney’s Tuesday lead is unlikely to diminish and might actually grow.

But like MacArthur, Romney is running out of islands to hop and must prepare for battle on the mainland. With the Republican nominating process almost halfway through, Romney needs to find a way to get to 1,144 delegates by the last contest, Utah on June 26.

That’s no small feat for Romney, who needs to win at least 48 percent of the delegates still available to claim victory. Romney has won 53 percent of the delegates so far and much of the terrain ahead looks favorable to him, but that’s not much margin for error.

It’s far better, though, than the plights of Santorum and third-place Newt Gingrich. Santorum would need 66 percent of the delegates remaining, having won only 27 percent of the delegates so far. Gingrich, who has won 14 percent of the delegates so far, would need to win 74 percent of what’s still available.

Because of the way delegates are awarded, Romney has won more than half the delegates already awarded with only about 39 percent of the popular vote. But assuming Romney could only get 39 percent of the delegates remaining, there’s no clear path to victory for either Santorum or Gingrich other than in a floor fight at the convention in Tampa at the end of August.

Even if Gingrich had bowed out Tuesday following his third and fourth Southern defeats, it’s very unlikely that second-place Santorum could win on his own. Romney will get a chunk of Gingrich backers when the road ends for the former speaker, and there just isn’t enough left to put Santorum over the top.

Santorum says he can do it if Republicans rally behind him, starting with big wins in upcoming contests in Missouri, Louisiana, Illinois and Puerto Rico. But barring a massive collapse in Romney’s support, Santorum will never get enough pledged delegates to win the nomination.

If Romney collapsed and if the unbound delegates all stampeded to Santorum, it’s technically possible that Santorum could win outright before the convention. But that scenario sounds very farfetched. It is a necessary line of argument for Santorum, though.

Republicans have a reasonable dread of what happens after a long, ugly and inconclusive primary process and of the vagaries of a contested convention. Santorum, leaning on some reedy hopes, is telling Republicans it’s okay to prolong the process because he can still win it decisively.

Santorum’s more realistic path would be getting socially conservative voters to put him as close as possible so that he can overtake Romney in the second or third ballot in Tampa. This would be a scenario in which Gingrich is not in contention and his delegates, once released after an inconclusive first ballot, flood to Santorum and quickly put the former Pennsylvania senator over the 1,144 threshold.

This would be the General Motors version of a contested convention – structured default.

In this scenario, Santorum would eventually have to ask Republicans to take a chance on heading into a convention without a nominee but with a plan to immediately coalesce, kick Romney to the curb and move on.

But even that is less likely to happen if primary voters have to think about the possibility of such a perilous path. That realization would drive down Santorum’s vote. So for as long as he can, Santorum will talk about an outright pre-convention victory, which will probably remain mathematically possible for several more weeks.

Gingrich, owing to his nature and his performance at the polls, has embraced the idea of convention chaos. For him, the race is not about his own victory anymore, but denying one to Romney.

Gingrich has an idea that is more, er, transformational, than Santorum’s. Gingrich, sounding a bit like Ross Perot calling for national electronic referenda during the 1992 election, has suggested that Republicans hack their way through three more months of the current unpleasantness and then move on to a 60-day nationwide “discussion” through social media to determine whom they believe should be the nominee.

It could be one of the current contenders or, Gingrich tantalizingly tells Romney resisters unsatisfied with their current alternatives, somebody else.

This would be a little like a poorly-seeded team in the NCAA tournament about to play a top team suggesting that while that game should be played, the ultimate championship should be determined by a slam dunk contest or, if Gingrich were the coach, a modified Lincoln-Douglas style debate between the teams.

The flaw in Gingrich’s reasoning is that his candidacy will likely soon hit the dreaded viability wall. Once voters conclude that a candidate cannot win, they tend to leave them, no matter how much they like the candidate or find their ideas exciting.

By the time Rick Perry left the race, for example, it didn’t much matter what he did. Perry had fallen so far down that his presence was not much of a factor for the frontrunners. Or consider Ron Paul. The longer Paul goes without a win, the harder it becomes to get the votes necessary for top-three finishes and delegates.

Gingrich can stay in, but Santorum and Romney are already scavenging his supporters.

They key for Santorum is to expedite that process in order to get as many delegates as possible in the upcoming contests in so he can be the only rival to Romney come convention time. For Romney, the task is to hold on to his cloak of inevitability despite his poor showing on Tuesday.

If Romney can’t, do that, he will have to spend several months fighting over his weak spot with the Republican base – social issues – while simultaneously fending off the Obama campaign on the economy and Romney’s status as a rich dude.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Yes, Romney had a bad night, but Gingrich had a worse night. That was his home court. If he can't win Alabama or Mississippi, where can he win? It had the tone of a man who knows it's out of his reach now but he wants to stay in there. He wants to settle some scores."

-- Charles Krauthammer on an election-night special edition of “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.

 

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.