Mitt Romney is poised to clock an easy victory here Tuesday, accomplishing a historic feat by winning back-to-back contests here and in Iowa and putting himself on a glide path to his party’s nomination.
The trouble for Romney is, his rivals don’t quite see things that way.
For conservative opponents such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the wild ups and downs of the campaign so far offer little inducement to bow to Romney’s purported inevitability. If the GOP rank and file is swinging into the Romney camp, national polls don’t show it yet. And thanks to new party rules that forbid states from holding winner-take-all primaries before April, Romney’s opponents recognize it will be difficult for him to clinch a majority of delegates anytime soon.
So even if Romney plows through the remaining January primaries, building up momentum and denying his challengers the opportunity to consolidate voters on the right, he may still have a costly, irksome distraction of a nomination process ahead of him — a long march that could drain resources and make him a more bruised and battered victor.
“The Romney people did a clever thing: they positioned him as the alternative to all the Romney alternatives,” said Gingrich adviser Kellyanne Conway, referring to Romney’s strategy of running against a divided field. “But what he really is is who he’s always been, which is a weak front-runner who has slowly brought together a gaggle of reluctant Romney voters who feel like they have to lean into nonsense concepts like inevitability and electability.”
In a Jon Huntsman campaign memo circulated Sunday, senior adviser John Weaver argued that the primary “battle will go on well into the spring, until a decisive set of primaries between only two or perhaps three candidates have concluded.”
“While Team Romney has used and will continue to use that to their initial advantage, ultimately the coalescing of support behind one consistent, electable conservative candidate will be the undoing of the White Star Line moderate,” Weaver wrote, pointing to GOP rules emphasizing proportional delegate allocation.
And Ron Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton agreed that it’s “highly unlikely” that anyone will be able to claim the nomination in deed — rather than in the hazy world of perceived momentum — in the near future.
“We have always planned for a marathon campaign and are ready to go the distance,” he said. “Dr. Paul’s fundraising prowess, organization and deep nationwide grass-roots support will let us compete, and win, well downstream and into June.”
On one level, Romney may not have much to fear from what amounts to a primary in name only. Even if his opponents stay in the race, that doesn’t mean any of them will have the financial or organizational resources to put the GOP nomination in genuine jeopardy. And Romney allies are hopeful that a clean sweep of the January contests would burn away political and financial oxygen from the rest of the field and make even the most committed opponent question their staying power.