Nobody had the week of March 11 circled on the political calendars last fall. The week after Super Tuesday featured two contests in the Deep South, two on the islands, and a caucus in a state that had already hosted a meaningless, if well-attended, primary. But last week may end up being more significant than most in the bizarre and meandering Republican presidential nominating process. It was the race in a snapshot: Rick Santorum did better than expected. Mitt Romney failed to win over very conservative voters but continued to add delegates. And Newt Gingrich underperformed but vowed to continue.
Still, something changed: The campaigns for two of the three leading candidates acknowledged that their strategy is not to win the nomination outright but to prevent Romney from doing so. That means their goal is a contested convention.
Gingrich said this directly in a March 13 interview with Bret Baier on Fox News. “We just got two out of every three delegates in Mississippi and Alabama for somebody other than Mitt Romney. I don’t think that’s what he wanted. . . . The first goal has to be to get to a point where there’s an alternative to Romney. Otherwise, he becomes the nominee.”
The Santorum campaign was not quite as blunt, but the message was the same. In a strategy memo released March 12, adviser John Yob argued that the delegates selected at local and state conventions are likely to prefer the most conservative candidate in the race. Santorum’s real advantage, he wrote, is at the national convention. “Mitt Romney must have a majority on the first ballot in order to win the nomination because he will perform worse on subsequent ballots as grassroots conservative delegates decide to back the more conservative candidate. . . . Santorum only needs to be relatively close on the initial ballot in order to win on a later ballot as Romney’s support erodes.” John Brabender, Santorum’s chief strategist, tells me the campaign has hired experts on delegate allocation and convention rules.
If the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns agree on strategy, they differ on tactics. Gingrich wants a partnership with his conservative rival; Santorum doesn’t. The Gingrich campaign claims its candidate must stay in the race for two main reasons: (1) With two conservatives in the race Romney won’t be able to end the race by training his fire on just one opponent, and (2) Gingrich can fight Romney for delegates in places where Santorum didn’t do the procedural groundwork—4 congressional districts in Illinois (10 delegates) and Washington, D.C. (16). A Gingrich adviser tells me that Gingrich and Santorum together could be a “powerful team.”
Santorum’s campaign isn’t interested. “It’s very clear that the ultimate goal is to unify conservatives around a candidate that’s not Mitt Romney,” says Brabender. “Either we’re going to unify around Rick Santorum or we’re not. This is the game. We’re in it now. We’re trying to win.” To that end, Santorum has bought ad time in Illinois ahead of the March 20 primary there, and also in Louisiana (March 24) and Wisconsin (April 3).
Romney’s campaign insists that the math favors their candidate. And while they’ve overstated his inevitability—one adviser said it’d take “an act of God” to keep him from winning—he is still well ahead in the delegate count. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato puts the likelihood of a Romney nomination at 80 percent.
Romney has had some very good moments in recent weeks. When he took a question from a father whose son, a veteran of service in Afghanistan, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Romney answered with compassion, sincerity, and just the right amount of indignation about the poor treatment the Marine has gotten from the government that sent him to war. And while Gingrich has gotten lots of attention on gas prices, Romney’s critique of the Obama administration’s energy policy decisions is precise and persuasive.
But Romney hasn’t won over a majority of Republican voters who identify themselves as “very conservative,” and talk of delegate math and inevitability by his campaign doesn’t exactly generate excitement.
That’s a problem. A Gallup poll last week found that just 35 percent of Republicans would “enthusiastically” support Romney as the nominee. By contrast, 47 percent of Republicans told Gallup in February 2008 that they would enthusiastically support John McCain. It’s not just Romney. Last week’s poll, in a confirmation of polling throughout the campaign, found that Republicans aren’t thrilled with the field. Just 34 percent said they’d “enthusiastically” back Santorum, and just 28 percent said that of Gingrich.
This lack of enthusiasm has reignited talk of a contested or brokered convention. “I’m pushing for a floor fight. . . . I’d like to see a good old-fashioned convention and a dark horse come out,” Maine Republican governor Paul LePage told Politico in late February. “I just believe we ought to go to the convention and pick a fresh face.”
Romney last week dismissed such talk. “We’re not going to go to a brokered convention,” he told Fox’s Bill Hemmer. “One . . . of us among the three or four that are running is going to get the delegates necessary to become the nominee.” But it’s a possibility, however slim, that Romney did entertain just two weeks earlier.
On Saturday, March 3, Romney stood with Santorum and Gingrich on the floor of a shuttered DHL warehouse in Wilmington, Ohio, next to a makeshift set constructed for a presidential forum hosted by Mike Huckabee. Each man had filmed individual question-and-answer sessions with Huckabee and panels of economic experts and local Ohio business owners. With a brief break before they gave their closing statements, Romney approached Santorum and Gingrich (Ron Paul was busy campaigning in Washington).
The three candidates discussed the nominating process. Romney raised the possibility of an unvetted candidate getting into the race and spoke of the perils such a scenario presented for the party. Not surprisingly, the other two assented and each agreed that he would reserve his support for someone now in the race. R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Gingrich, said the consensus that emerged from the conversation was that the Republican nominee was among “the four of us” and not an outsider. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, agreed with that characterization.
Despite the consensus that emerged from the discussion in Wilmington, Gingrich twice raised the possibility of a new entrant in an interview last week with Bret Baier on Fox News. Gingrich pointed to Romney’s difficulty winning support from conservatives. “I’m just saying analytically—the way we campaigned out here, the fact that two out of the three delegates from each state is not going to be for Romney—is a significant advantage. We can argue later on whether Santorum is the right person to nominate or Gingrich is—or something else may happen.”
Moments later, Baier asked Gingrich to describe his path to the nomination. “There’s a 60-day period between the last primary to the convention. We live in an age of television, radio—you know—YouTube, video . . . what have you. I could imagine a dialogue would break out that says, ‘Who’s the right person?’ And whether it’s one of the four of us or someone else—but the question is, ‘Who is the person who is capable of defeating Barack Obama?’ ” (Emphasis added.)
Is this just the rambling of a candidate with no direct path to the nomination? Perhaps. But even before he spoke, a prominent Republican strategist unaligned with any current candidate emailed me: “Can’t someone else get in?”
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the Washington state Republican party, says a convention fight that ends with a new candidate would be good for the party. Wilbur, whose position makes him neutral in the race, says those who argue that such a scenario would be disastrous are mistaken. “There’s simply not a real broad-based candidate that appeals to everybody in the party,” he says. “The longer this goes on with Romney winning small states big, but winning just 30 or 35 percent in other states—that’s not a mandate. They’re arguing: ‘Let’s accept inevi–tability.’ That’s not happening.”
The risk, Wilbur acknowledges, is a chaotic convention that sets up well for a proverbial white knight who never shows up. And the candidates most often mentioned as saviors have all said they’re not interested—at least for now. Wilbur says there would be two possibilities for a late entry: In the two months between the final primary in Utah and the convention, and at the convention itself. “If Romney doesn’t get 1,144 [delegates] and would go into the convention without a majority, I think then there’s a period of negotiation before Tampa where Romney approaches Santorum and Gingrich and Paul and negotiates for delegates. If they don’t agree to help him, and he doesn’t win on the first ballot—most delegates are released after the first ballot, and it’d be wide open. It’s not hard to see a Marco Rubio, a Mitch Daniels, or a Chris Christie—I’m not preferring any of them, but those are the names out there—and on the second ballot there’s an incredible sweep toward him.”
Wouldn’t that look like the establishment simply shoving its choice down the throats of party rank-and-file? Wilbur, a strong conservative and former talk radio host in Seattle, doesn’t think so. “There would have to be a consensus among the delegates, so it wouldn’t just be the party leaders. It would have to be somebody with grassroots support. The delegates are the grassroots and they’re conservative—more conservative than the leadership.”
That process, Wilbur argues, would energize the Republican base, not discourage it. “The eyes of the nation will be on the convention—no one is paying much attention before then. What they see is a candidate come to the forefront, get the enthusiasm and excitement of the convention—and that’s contagious.”
How likely is it? In the 1994 movie Dumb and Dumber—juvenile, but classic—Jim Carrey plays Lloyd Christmas, a dimbulb who battles with his good friend and fellow idiot, Harry Dunne, to win the heart of Aspen, Colorado, socialite Mary Swanson. Swanson finds the men repulsive, but an indefatigable Christmas pursues her despite her obvious lack of interest. At one point, he asks her to level with him about his chances.
“Not good,” she replies.
“You mean, not good like one in a hundred?”
“I’d say . . . more like one in a million.”
After a brief pause, a wide smile creeps across his face, and he pumps his fist. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
No, they don’t end up together. Even in Hollywood there’s no guarantee of a storybook ending.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.