For Mitt Romney, a Good Night but Not a Knockout

by Stuart Rothenberg March 9, 2012 · 10:19 AM EST

More than two months after the race for the Republican nomination began in Iowa, the contest remains stuck. That’s both good and bad news for the leader in the Republican race.

No one in the GOP contest is able to overtake Mitt Romney, but the former Massachusetts governor seems incapable of putting away his opponents decisively.

On Tuesday, Romney won his home state (Massachusetts) and a neighboring state in New England (Vermont), a state where only he and Ron Paul were on the ballot (Virginia) and yet another Western state with a significant Mormon population (Idaho). And, of course, late in the evening, he squeezed out a narrow but crucially important win in Ohio and added Alaska to his list of victories.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) scored wins in Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich won his home state of Georgia easily.

That’s six wins for Romney, three for Santorum and one for Gingrich. And Romney’s delegate haul was just as big. At least by the numbers, it was a very good night for the Republican frontrunner.

Romney probably isn’t getting the credit he deserves for Tuesday because the early evening narrative was built — with help from Twitter and an early raw vote total that was disproportionately rural — around the beating he took in Tennessee and Santorum’s early showing in Ohio.

My own assessment of the night changed between the time I left the set of PBS’ “NewsHour” around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday and the time I was driving into work Wednesday morning. Throughout much of Tuesday night, Romney’s showing seemed disappointing. But by Wednesday, with a little more perspective on the evening’s results, Romney seemed to deserve a bit more credit, at least in my mind.

Romney continues to perform best among the same voting groups week after week: highly educated voters, high-income voters, urban and suburban voters, older voters, the less religious, moderate and liberal voters, “somewhat conservative” voters, nonevangelicals and those who oppose the tea party.

In contrast, he continues to underperform among rural voters, evangelicals and those for whom the religious beliefs of the candidates matter a great deal, those who believe that abortion should always be illegal and “very conservative” voters.

The religious/ideological divide in the Republican Party appears deep and difficult to broach for any candidate, and as long as none of the candidates can expand his appeal within the party, it is difficult to see the race ending.

Santorum’s showing was certainly good enough to keep him in the contest as he tries to wait until he gets a one-on-one shot at Romney. A win in Ohio would have given the former Senator substantial momentum, shaking up the GOP contest dramatically. Although that did not happen, Santorum remains the main conservative alternative to Romney.

Gingrich’s showing on Tuesday was the most disappointing. While he carried his home state decisively, his third-place showing in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Ohio and his fourth-place showing in Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska demonstrate the limits of his personal appeal and, even more important, the limits of his campaign.

Gingrich increasingly sounds out of touch with reality in his primary night speeches. He acts as if he is making progress even though Santorum has eclipsed him among conservatives and Romney no longer bothers to attack him.

And yet, Gingrich remains a factor, as he was on Tuesday. If he wasn’t in the race in Ohio this week, Santorum probably would have defeated Romney, possibly handily.

Romney’s less-than-decisive victory on Tuesday shouldn’t obscure the fact that he continues to be the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination. In fact, the results on Super Tuesday added to his delegate lead and make it increasingly difficult to imagine how anyone else in the race can overtake him.

Until now, the Republican race has mostly been about wins and momentum. But with Romney unable to end the contest for the nomination with a knockout blow of his opponents, and with the primary looking as if it could go on well into April, journalists and political analysts are likely to turn more of their attention to the slog for delegates, where Romney already has an advantage.

He not only has a substantial lead in delegates, he also has the money and campaign to compete everywhere he chooses in the weeks and months ahead. His opponents for the GOP nomination do not have that luxury.

Still, Romney’s inability to deliver a crushing blow Tuesday means that the Republican fight is now likely to go on at least into the middle of April. None of the upcoming contests are likely to be so decisive as to destroy the anti-Romney forces. In fact, the Alabama and Mississippi contests on Tuesday are likely to remind conservatives of Romney’s weakness, and a Romney win in Illinois on March 20, assuming it occurs, is not likely to change the current narrative.

That means April 3 could be the next really interesting night, with Romney likely to win in Maryland and the District of Columbia and Wisconsin being a slugfest.

Three weeks later, the Northeast primary, which includes Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut, could be decisive. But that’s a long way off.

So the GOP race drags on. The nastiness continues. The Republican Party remains divided. And David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s top strategist, has reason to smile, at least for a while longer.