Republicans frustrated with Romney’s inability to lock up the primary once and for all may finally have some good news this month. The race may not be over, but there are a handful of indications this week that Romney is taking control, from cracks in his opponents’ resolve to some surprising poll data.
The calendar is about to hit a long lull that threatens to carry things all the way through June, meaning Romney has to start showing some real momentum soon if he wants to put the race away, or at least make his opponents look like dead-enders. But beyond the Etch-a-Sketch and the car elevator, there are signs he may be doing just that.
Romney’s Death Star Is Fully Operational
Rick Santorum won big in Louisiana, unsurprising given Romney’s weak performance in the South so far. Wisconsin, on April 3, is the bigger primary fight and Romney’s last chance to score a major victory before the next round of voting on April 24, where he is heavily favored in several Northeastern states and could upend Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania. Romney needs credible momentum heading into those contests, because they are followed by a round of Southern states in May likely to favor Santorum and offer him strong incentive to stay in the race even if his delegate math is lousier than ever (and it’s pretty lousy already).
Santorum has led previous polls of Wisconsin, but the latest numbers suggest that Romney’s usual Death Star — his ability to overwhelm Santorum with attack ads through his campaign and affiliated super PAC — is alive and well. His combined forces have outspent Santorum almost 9-to-1 so far, according to a Democratic media observer, and it shows in the latest poll from Marquette, where Romney leads 39 percent to Santorum’s 31 percent, Ron Paul’s 11 percent and Newt Gingrich’s 5 percent.
Two Men Enter … Romney Leaves?
Santorum’s end game for weeks has been to winnow things down to a two-man race with Romney, where he could finally consolidate the conservative vote and dominate. But there are signs that this is finally happening — and that it’s not hurting Romney after all.
As TPM reported earlier, Gingrich’s crash and burn in Louisiana, a state that played to his strengths better than almost any other, was likely a fatal blow. And — if his Wisconsin numbers are any indication — dropping out of the race wouldn’t likely make a huge difference no matter where his supporters went. Yet Romney is still winning in what is basically a two-man contest.
And it’s not just state polling. A new CNN poll shows Romney’s lead over Santorum actually expanding if Gingrich drops out, from 36 percent to 26 percent, to 45 percent to 30 percent, bucking the conventional wisdom that Gingrich is merely a placeholder for anti-Romney sentiment.
Romney’s Rivals Look To Plan B
One sign a campaign isn’t exactly at its most confident — they start entertaining in detail what they’re going to do if they lose.
In Santorum’s case, he talked up the possibility of a joint ticket, telling CBN he would “of course” take the vice presidential slot to Romney if it came down to that. “I’ll do whatever is necessary to help our country,” he said.
Gingrich admitted this week that “money is very tight” for his campaign. He also openly mused about plans for his delegates at the convention if he couldn’t secure the nomination — albeit with a hard elbow thrown at Romney.
“One of my goals would be, even if Romney does end up as the nominee, to make sure we don’t have an Etch-A-Sketch platform,” he said in Maryland on Tuesday. “I think people want a conservative platform. They want a conservative campaign this fall, and I intend to be there all the way to Tampa.”
The Air of Inevitability
It got lost in the furor over Romney’s usual post-victory gaffes, but he’s steadily picked up some big-name endorsements this week — most notably Jeb Bush, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy — suggesting national Republicans may finally be recognizing his inevitability.
And it’s not just the D.C. elite that get the sense things are coming up Mitt. The latest CNN poll shows that 71 percent of Republican voters now think Romney is either almost certain or very likely to be their nominee. They may not be happy about it, but it’s tougher to organize resistance when the expectation is Romney already has it in the bag.
The calendar still may favor Romney’s rivals sticking around all the way to June. But just as Hillary Clinton was considered finished after she lost North Carolina and only narrowly won Indiana, Santorum and Gingrich are in serious danger of being written off long before then by. Romney’s situation hasn’t looked this good in weeks.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.