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Romney Still Looks Like Front-Runner Even After Santorum's 3-State Romp

Mitt Romney during a lighter moment in Loveland, Colo. on a day when he lost three presidential preference contests, Feb. 7, 2012.
Gerald Herbert
Mitt Romney during a lighter moment in Loveland, Colo. on a day when he lost three presidential preference contests, Feb. 7, 2012.

Mitt Romney can take solace Wednesday in the words of Mark Hanna, the 19th century Ohio industrialist and political boss who once famously said: "There are two things that are important in politics, money and I can't remember the second."

After Rick Santorum won handily Tuesday in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and the Missouri primary, with Romney drawing fewer votes in all three contests than he did four years ago, the former Massachusetts governor continues to demonstrate weakness with an important segment of the Republican Party base — many social conservatives.

But his campaign treasury, which dwarfs that of all his rivals combined, demonstrates that another part of the party, the big donors who are the modern-day equivalents of Hanna, are there for him.

So while it would have been better for Romney, obviously, if he had won at least one and preferably two if not all three of Tuesday's contests, even if delegates weren't at stake, he has the money hoard and all the organization and TV ads it can buy to get through a rough week and then some. And let's not even get into his allied superPAC.

Meanwhile, many analysts (and common sense) suggest Santorum will have problems building on his wins in Tuesday's three states because his situation is the reverse of Romney's — he lacks money and organization. Also, while he appeals to many social conservatives, his attractiveness seems to drop off steeply after that.

The consensus is the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania should enjoy his time in the sun while it lasts because it won't.

Middlebury College political scientist Matthew Dickinson puts it this way on his Presidential Power blog:

"So where does the race stand? Just where it was before yesterday: Mitt is the weak frontrunner who faces an extended battle for the nomination, but who will remain the frontrunner if the Republican base doesn't rally around a single alternative. Note that we can't be sure of the delegate count until the final votes are tallied in Minnesota, but no matter what happens Romney will remain in the delegate lead.

"It may be more instructive at this point, however, to look at the popular vote totals. To date Romney has won about 1.1 million votes, compared to about .8 for Gingrich and only 430,000 for the Rickster. Paul trails the field with 305,000 votes. I think that's probably a relatively accurate barometer of their strengths as candidates right now...

"Bottom line? I expect Mitt Vader and the Romney Empire To Strike Back with all the force the Dark Side can muster against Young Rick VestWearer. The next two weeks won't be pretty."

While Romney's poor showing Tuesday "could be a bump in the road" for Romney, according to Stonehill College political scientist Peter Ubertaccio in an interview on NECN, New England Cable News, it could also turn out to be more serious if Romney doesn't win decisively in Arizona and Michigan primaries, which happen on Feb. 28 (Romney is expected to win the Maine Republican primary on Saturday, though Rep. Ron Paul or Santorum could upset his apple cart there, too.)

Ubertaccio had a warning for Romney about Arizona and Michigan:

"He has to do well there. He has to win. He has to win at least one of those states. If you're the frontrunner you can't lose three states in one night. And you can't continue to lose going into Super Tuesday."

But remember what Hanna said about money in politics. Romney has more than two weeks to put it to work. We can expect the negative ad bombing run against Santorum in those states to begin momentarily.

And Republican voters in those states may be more receptive to hard-edged messages critical of Santorum than their counterparts in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Ronald Brownstein at the National Journal notes how those two states differ from Tuesday's contests:

"While Tuesday's results suggest the lingering resistance to Romney among social conservatives, the next two primary states on the calendar, Arizona and Michigan, offer more favorable terrain for him: In 2008, about three-fifths of GOP primary voters in each state did not identify as evangelical Christians (the same proportion as Florida, where Romney romped). And the longer lead up to both primaries should allow him more opportunity to exercise his financial and organizational advantages over Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who also face the risk of continuing to divide the conservative core most resistant to Romney."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.