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.