OK, we’re now down to a two-man race for the Republican presidential nomination. It’s John McCain and Mitt Romney. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are gone. Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are going nowhere. McCain vs. Romney — the Soiree on Super Tuesday.
The Romney campaign always wanted a two-man race, and now it has one. But does it come too late for the Massachusetts governor? Is Romney a victim of history — the short history of the 2008 primary season and his own longer history in politics?
The Republican race that Romney wanted was never supposed to happen like this. The “full-spectrum conservative” Romney was going to gather up early-state wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan and barrel ahead for one-on-one showdowns in South Carolina, Florida and two dozen Super Tuesday states a week later.
That, at least, was the plan. But Huckabee’s Evangelical-driven Iowa win, Thompson’s quasi-campaign, Giuliani’s retreat to Florida — all conspired to keep Romney from making it a contest between the conservative and the not-so-conservative GOP candidate. The result: McCain has been able to cobble together primary victories without ever having actually won the votes of self-identified Republicans.
That hasn’t been a problem for McCain in a multi-candidate race. But it will be a problem for him from now on — in the GOP primary if Romney can make a one-on-one race of it and in the general election if McCain cannot rev up a demoralized GOP base .
Romney’s multi-candidate problem isn’t completely over yet. Huckabee is hanging around, auditioning for the vice presidency on a McCain ticket. His presence complicates things for Romney in the Huck-friendly Super Tuesday states of Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri. That said, there are still plenty of other states — and more delegates in non-winner-take-all states — up for grabs next Tuesday. Yes, there are more than 1,000 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, but 900 more will be decided in the weeks and months following.
A total of 1,191 are needed to win the nomination. Right now Romney has 59 delegates and McCain 93. In the year of the voter and not the prognosticator, it’s a tad early to declare McCain inevitable or even all but inevitable.
The next week will give Republican voters a chance to choose between McCain and Romney. Voters haven’t had this kind of narrow choice since Romney won Michigan, and that primary was open to Democrats and independents. If the Florida exit polls are any guide, a two-man Republican race — two-and-a-half men if you figure in Huckabee — could work to Romney’s advantage. “Conservatives” made up 62 percent of Florida’s GOP voters. Romney beat McCain 37 percent to 27 percent among those Republicans and 44 percent to 27 percent among those who call themselves “very conservative.” Among the 80 percent who described themselves as “loyal Republicans,” Romney edged out McCain 33 to 31 percent. (McCain made up the difference by whipping Romney among “independent” Republicans.)
This isn’t buyer’s remorse. McCain has yet to make the sale, much less seal the deal.
Where will the conservatives and “loyal Republicans” who like Rudy go now that he’s out of the race? Will they heed his Wednesday endorsement of McCain? Where will conservatives and “loyal Republicans” who like Huckabee go now that it’s clear his candidacy has wandered into the Pat Robertson wilderness?
Will they throw away their votes on Huckabee? Or will they break to Romney? I’m not so sure. If McCain poses problems for conservatives and “loyal Republicans,” Romney, as even his supporters must acknowledge, is an imperfect vessel to point up these problems. Too many flip-flops over the course of his own time in politics. Too much perceived pandering. Too bad, but true.
Also, Romney’s not the only player in the new two-man race. McCain can say things to help himself with the GOP base, as he started to do last week in Florida.
So is the GOP presidential race all over but the vote counting? You’d be daft to answer such a question this year. After all, six months ago, the smart money said John McCain was out of the running.
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