Everybody wants you to think something different about what tonight’s results mean.
Mitt Romney wants you to dwell on a comeback kid narrative. His camp’s version goes something like this: here’s a guy who was knocked off his game by the genie let out of the bottle by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United ruling. Just as he was consolidating his victory in New Hampshire and his (rescinded) triumph in Iowa, suddenly a billionaire casino mogul showed up and flung millions of dollars at his bomb-throwing opponent.
And yet, the narrative goes, like a mythical hero he emerged from the flames hardened, sharpened, and willing to fight back. He raised his game in the debates and pushed back his surging rival, ultimately romping to victory by a serious margin.
Newt Gingrich, of course, see things differently. From his perspective the party’s establishment took fright when he proved in Palmetto that their chosen candidate was vulnerable to attacks from the left as well as the right. They then coalesced behind their moderate standard-bearer and tried to push the truth-telling conservative out of the race. Even Newt’s endorsements from the likes of Chuck Norris and (sort of) Sarah Palin couldn’t hold back the massed forces of the GOP’s old guard. But, Team Newt insists, Romney’s shown he needs money to survive, and Newt’s got the wind at his back. He’ll live to fight another day, and will escape into the hills for now, waiting for the snows to melt around March’s Super Tuesday, when he’ll shock everyone with a spring offensive.
The Democrats want you to see something similar. In my conversations with them this week they’ve been all about pushing the idea that Mitt’s wallet is what’s winning votes, not his personality. If you’re a swing-voting Florida senior or Hispanic, then they also want you to think Mitt’s lying to you: he doesn’t really like Medicare or immigration as much as he claims.
Rick Santorum wants you to think this night didn’t really matter. The Nevada vote on Saturday might matter (but only if he does well.) However, judging from the fact that he’s the first candidate to have hit up Missouri, where he happens to be on the ballot while Newt Gingrich is not, he’d really like you to think the Show-Me State is the next big thing.
Ron Paul’s mind has been more on Maine. The caucuses there stretch though till Feb. 11. He’s been making a lot of appearances there, and hopes to have a strong showing. He also hopes to make a decent fist of it in Colorado on Feb. 7. A bit like Newt he plans to stretch this out as long as possible, picking up delegates in a rumbling guerrilla-style insurgency that uses caucus states to play to his main strength - an enthusiastic base that likes turning out voters, or at least trying.
So what does it really mean? Well, it’s hard not to see this as the moment where the GOP power brokers will start treating Romney as the nominee in all but name. That’s why you’ve seen the Democrats pile on so strongly in what’s sure to be a key battleground in the general election. They want the takeaway to be that he’s sown the seeds of his own destruction. But, of course, as all the other candidates point out: many months lie ahead until the convention, let alone the November election.