Republican Roller Coaster Ride Continues

by Stuart Rothenberg March 2, 2012 · 1:54 PM EST

Has the Republican race reached a tipping point, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney re-establishing himself as the solid favorite for the Republican nomination and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) slipping awfully close to the “long shot” category? Probably.

Romney has won four of the five primaries that involved delegates, losing only South Carolina to Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor has now won a state in New England (New Hampshire), two Sunbelt states (Arizona and Florida) and a large, Midwest state (Michigan).

Add to Romney’s haul two caucus states ­— one in New England (Maine) and another in the West (Nevada) — and you have a map that suggests at least some national appeal, as well as the ability to win other GOP contests across the country.

Of course, it’s easy to undermine that view by pointing out that Michigan is Romney’s home state (and he won it only narrowly) and that one-quarter of GOP caucus attendees in Nevada were Mormon.

And exit polling from Michigan generally found that Romney hasn’t yet broadened his appeal dramatically with the GOP. He continues to have significant problems in rural areas, among religious voters and downscale voters and, of course, among the most conservative Republicans.

Still, for all of the hoopla about conservative opposition to Romney, Gingrich and Santorum together have won one primary involving delegates (South Carolina), one primary that was a mere beauty contest (Missouri) and three caucuses (Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado).

Santorum, Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) have been picking up delegates along the way, and the Republican calendar gives them each a chance for a big victory over the next couple of weeks. But unless they win a state that seems out of their comfort zone — Ohio is the obvious example of a state that could change the psychology of the Republican contest yet again — their victories aren’t likely to fundamentally change the race’s dynamic. And changing the fundamental dynamic is essential for Santorum, who now seems to be the only credible alternative to Romney.

Winning Georgia alone next week isn’t likely to jump-start the Gingrich campaign. That victory will be written off as predictable. He’ll need other wins. Santorum also needs more than a win or two to rebuild some momentum.

Romney would seem to start with three states in the bank — Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, where only he and Paul made the ballot — so victories in even a few more states, as long as one of them is named Ohio, would guarantee a strong Super Tuesday showing.

Ohio and Tennessee look to have the most impact next week. Obviously, Ohio is a large state that is crucial to Republican prospects in November. But more than that, it has come to typify small-town, mainstream conservative Republicanism (at least before the party’s sweet spot moved South). The winner of Ohio will have the kind of talking point coming out of Super Tuesday that will get plenty of attention.

I continue to believe that Tennessee also has the potential to be big.

The state’s Republicans are a schizophrenic lot, with heavily Republican Eastern Tennessee more populated by “establishment” Republicans and the central and western part of the state filled with more conservatives.

The state has seen many ideological GOP primaries for Senator and governor over the years, with “establishment” Republican candidates, such as current Gov. Bill Haslam and Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, often winning over more conservative opponents.

If Romney can squeeze out a win in Tennessee to go along with his expected victory in Virginia, his strong showing in the South suddenly makes it far more difficult for his opponents to lay out a successful strategy for overtaking him for the Republican nomination, no matter what happens in Alaska, North Dakota or Oklahoma next week.

All along, Romney’s cash and national focus have been seen by most insiders as huge advantages, and they have allowed him to rebound from weak showings. He has been able to stagger away from rough primary/caucus weeks (in South Carolina and on Feb. 7, when he fared poorly in three states) and pummel his opponents on TV in the upcoming states, never allowing them to get up a head of steam.

Those who say that this isn’t the best way to win a presidential nomination are entirely correct. But the alternative, losing, isn’t much of an option for Romney or his senior advisers.

Finally, it is hard not to wonder what the final outcome in Michigan might have been without Gingrich in the race. While he didn’t campaign there, he drew about 7 percent of the vote.

That was more than double the margin between Romney and Santorum.

Of course, it’s impossible to say with great assurance that Gingrich voters would have participated in the primary, and would have favored Santorum if the former Speaker had not been on the ballot. But a quick look at the exit polls show that his voters seemed to look more like Santorum’s — in terms of education, union membership, religiosity, geography and attitude toward the auto bailout — than like Romney’s supporters.