By Stump Connolly

Mitt Romney had a good night on Super Tuesday, just not good enough. His spinmeisters were out in force Wednesday showing reporters algorithms that prove Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will never catch him. Winning six states and 212 delegates on Tuesday gives Romney 419 (ABC says it is 397) of the 1,144 delegates he needs to get the Republican nomination. Santorum can win 50 percent of all the remaining delegates and still not catch him, they claim. It’s an impressive argument, and probably true. But that still doesn’t explain Ohio.

Ohio is where Romney had to put the stake through the heart of the Santorum campaign. Coming off a big win in Michigan––you could almost call it life saving––and with six times as many TV commercials airing as Santorum, Romney could only eke out a 12,000 vote victory in Ohio out of the 1.2 million votes cast. (Slate’s John Dickenson called it a “prosciutto-thin” margin.) And even when he was winning the actual vote, Romney was losing in the exit polls where pundits saw all manner of softness in his support, in no small measure because the actual vote victory didn’t take into account the fact 175,000 Ohio conservatives voted for the third man in the race, Newt Gingrich.

Ohio, The Battleground State

Ohio is one of the great battleground states in American presidential politics. It is a rich and thick stew of American values, both Democratic and Republican, nurtured in areas as diverse as the industrial cities like Toledo and Cleveland in the north and the Appalachian hills in the south. There are hundreds of town and gown cities with universities in Ohio, not the least being Columbus, home of Ohio State University. There are Republican strongholds in Cincinnati and Dayton, Democratic ones in Youngstown and Akron, and miles of independent-minded people in between. Ohio is one of those rare states where the exit polls actually tell you something about what America is thinking.

And what the exit polls said on Tuesday is that Mitt Romney hasn’t sealed the deal with what is now the prevailing base of the Republican party. In Ohio, 76 percent of Republican voters are under the age of 65, and Romney lost them to Santorum by 5 percent. 49 percent identify themselves as evangelical Christians, and he lost them by 17 percentage points. He lost to Santorum among blue-collar workers, non-college educated whites and “very conservative” voters by wide margins. And if you add Gingrich’s voters into the mix, he lost them by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

One True Conservative

So if Republicans want a ticket that represents the “soul” of the party, they’d be wise to put up a Santorum/Gingrich ticket (or Gingrich/Santorum) that represents the true conservative base of the party. It might not be a winning ticket in the fall, but it is a fairer representation of what the Republican primary voters are saying than the delegate totals the Romney campaign is touting.

The fundamental problem Romney faces is that he doesn’t understand the constituency he is running to represent. He knows what they want, and he’ll say whatever they want him to say to get their approval. (Hence, his reputation as a flip-flopper.) But he is not temperamentally one of them. When you bore down into his core values––and it takes a good amount of drilling––you’ll find the one thing he truly believes in is his own ability to solve problems. Yes, he philosophically believes in less government, but he also believes that the way to achieve that is to put him in charge. Republicans like to think conservatism is a philosophy. Romney thinks it is a business strategy. So he is conservative when it suits his purposes, and liberal when the circumstances require it. And those are not bad qualities in a good politician. But they don’t fit the temperament of the party he now seeks to represent.

By contrast, Santorum and Gingrich embody both the conservative social values so dear to the evangelicals and a “starve the beast” approach to government that rings true with the Tea Party element of the party. Not since Barry Goldwater threatened to saw off the East Coast have their been not one, but two, Republicans so disdainful of “the elites” in Washington and the media who are out to run your life.

When the Republicans gather in Tampa next August, you can bet Santorum and Gingrich will both get bigger applause for their speeches than Romney, although neither may have the delegates to beat him.

So what would happen if they were running as a team?

A ‘Death Match’ in the South

The next stops on the Republican campaign trail are the Mississippi and Alabama primaries next Tuesday. Romney’s Super PAC Restore the Future has already spent $3 million on TV ads there and in Louisiana, but he leads in neither. This is shaping up to be “a death match” between Santorum and Gingrich, as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight puts it, and Santorum seems to have the edge. But what happens if it turns into a love fest?

If Santorum can decisively defeat Gingrich in the two southern states where they are appealing to the same constituency, he can rightly claim to be the conservative’s choice––and Gingrich’s road to the presidency will effectively come to an end. Whether Gingrich ends his campaign at that point––more importantly, how he ends his campaign––will in turn determine how viable Santorum is going forward.

Predicting a New Gingrich election night speech is a fool’s errand. But what if . . . what if he loses and, by advance arrangement, throws the full weight of his campaign on election night behind Santorum? There are many good reasons why this probably won’t happen, not the least being that they don’t particularly like each other. But what if they both decide that they don’t like Romney even more?

Hello, Illinois

Events at that point in the campaign would be moving pretty fast. The next big primary state on the schedule is Illinois on March 20. Illinois Republicans will take 69 delegates to the convention––Ohio will take 66––but only 54 are up for grabs in the primary. They will be apportioned in groups of 2 and 4 delegates to the winner in each of Illinois’s 18 Congressional districts. As in Ohio, however, Santorum has failed to field a full delegate slate in four of those 18 districts so he can win only 45 at best. But Illinois is also what they call a “loophole” primary. There is a beauty contest popular vote that doesn’t affect delegates, but winning it would immediately catapult Santorum back into the race.

The widespread belief among pundits is that Illinois is a Romney state. The Republian party chairman Pat Brady is a Romney supporter. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford is his state campaign director, and much of the Republican establishment has contributed to his campaign. But, as a resident, I don’t know a single person who is chomping at the bit to vote for Romney; and our TV airwaves are miraculously commercial free on the presidential front.

Since there hasn’t been a reliable poll of Republicans in Illinois since last fall––that will surely change this week––Illinois is virgin territory for a fresh look at the remaining candidates. What if Santorum and Gingrich come to Illinois to campaign together against Romney? If they could find a way to put aside their personal animosities and blend their voices into a single candidacy, then I say it’s ‘katy, bar the door.’ Illinois becomes the gateway to the most exciting primary battle since . . . 2008.

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