By Stump Connolly

If excitement was in the air after Tuesday’s Republican primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, you wouldn’t have known it from watching the cable channels. Rick Santorum was happy to snatch two victories from Newt Gingrich in the heart of the Deep South. Mitt Romney was chagrined that he outspent his rivals by a 5 to 1 margin––and finished third. (So chagrined he passed on the opportunity to give an election night speech to go raise more money in New York.) But nobody withdrew, the pundits complained. And the race slogs on, slouching toward some distant point in time when a 1,144th delegate will fall in line behind some candidate (presumably Romney) and the Republicans will have a nominee.

The Delegate Math

“People who were hoping Romney could win in The South and clinch the nomination are going to have to realize: This race is going to go on, and on, and on. There’s no end in sight.” –– Ari Fletcher, President Bush’s former press secretary, on CNN.

The delegate math that has come to dominate this Republican race grows more complicated, and the calculations coming out of the campaigns ever more untrustworthy. On Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi, for instance, 898,000 voters went to the polls but Santorum’s victories there netted him only seven more delegates than Romney. In American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands, which held caucuses at the same time, the total number of people participating was under 1,000–– and Romney walked away with 25 of the 28 delegates chosen.

Upcoming primaries in Illinois and Louisiana have different rules for proportional voting––Illinois is holding a statewide popular vote allocating no delegates and Congressional contests where delegates pledged to individual contenders run under their own names––but even after the votes are counted, it is unclear whether winning delegates will be hard-pledged, soft-pledged or not pledged at all.

Under most tallies, Romney still has twice as many delegates as Santorum. But there’s no bounce in his step these days, or momentum pushing him forward. If you could put words in his mouth––and there are plenty of people who’d like to––he’d be saying “Let’s just get this over with.” Given the way the Republicans have set up the rules, there is no longer an easy way to do that.

The wind is all at the back of Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania, whose appeal to “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” threatens to turn his campaign into a crusade, and the Republican convention into a revival meeting.

The Best Laid Plans

“I don’t know what it is, but Mitt Romney has to do something to change the dynamics of this race.” ––Candy Crowley, CNN National Correspondent

There’s no question that Santorum’s sudden emergence as the conservative alternative has thrown Romney off his game. The Romney campaign team is one of the most professional ever assembled. With four years to plan, Romney courted the big donors early, built a vast network of state party leaders, studied Obama’s delegate strategy and prepared for a variety of contingencies.

Central to his plan was running on the economy––his unique ability as a businessman to manage the federal budget––and away from the social issues that divided his party and alienated the independent voters he would need in the general election.

As a faithful Mormon, the father of five children and an elder in his church, he clearly met the Republican standard for good family man. Since there was concern about how Mormonism polled among the party base, however, he stayed away from emphasizing it. He would instead be a candidate on the stump with one speech, one message––“I know how to get this country working again”––and one opponent, President Obama.

If the oppositional research part of the campaign team did its job, Romney could stay on the high road with that speech while they slowly squeezed the competition out of the race. The aim was to wrap up the nomination in Florida. And that’s where the race probably would have ended––if Romney’s Super PAC hadn’t overstepped the bounds going after Gingrich in Iowa.

Two Roads Diverged in a Snowy Iowa

The succession of conservative candidates who rose up to challenge Romney over the summer and quickly faded away is a testament to the Romney campaign’s prowess at working the media back channels. Facts emerged about Rick Perry and Herman Cain, and the media did its job in bringing them to the attention of the public.

By early December, Newt Gingrich was the reigning anti-Romney in the race. Only a month before the Iowa caucuses, he held a commanding lead in the polls. His debate performances were impressive, and, never humble, he proclaimed that he couldn’t see any way he would not be the party nominee.

That was before Romney’s Super PAC “Restore Our Future” launched a $3 million campaign of negative ads against him. Every TV station in Iowa carried wall-to-wall spots about his “baggage” as a Washington insider. His ratings dropped 19 points in 20 days. He finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and boarded a plane for New Hampshire “with steam coming from his ears,” according to reports.

His revenge would have to wait until South Carolina. There, with a $5 million cash infusion from Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich’s Super PAC struck back. It deployed its own barrage of negative ads against Romney. They were nasty, visceral spots cut from a documentary about Romney’s tenure as head of Bain Capital that portrayed his company as “vulture capitalists” who gut corporations for quick profits. And they worked. Gingrich won South Carolina with 40 percent of the vote against Romney’s 28.

Santorum Slips Under the Radar

The Gingrich-Romney feud continued into Florida. Romney outspent Gingrich $15 million to $3 million, almost all in negative ads, all over a three-week period. The stakes were so high Santorum ceded the territory to go off and mine the less crowded states with February caucuses.

But Romney’s superior organization also played a critical role. His field operatives were rounding up absentee and early voters as early as mid-December, and heavily courted the Hispanic vote. At every campaign stop, it seemed, Gingrich found Romney surrogates standing among the press disputing his statements or, worse, sharing jokes about him. (Two words: moon colony.) His staff prepped the candidate to be more assertive in debates and packed the halls with supporters to cheer him on when he was. It was all very calculated, and effective.

Romney beat Gingrich 47 to 32 percent in Florida(Santorum got 13 percent) and captured 50 delegates in the winner-take-all contest. “Newt Gingrich promised Florida voters the moon and crashed to earth,” John Dickerson wrote in Slate. “Inevitability restored.” Based on his financial advantage and the exit polls, Dickerson concluded, Romney’s bandwagon was back on track.

Victory in the Void

How Santorum managed to steal the focus of the race away from Romney after Florida––by winning two lightly attended caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri––will no doubt be a lively topic of debate next year at the Shorenstein Center on Politics and the Press.

For Romney operatives and most of the political press corps, February was when the Repubican race should have been on cruise control. Improving job numbers came out that bode well for President Obama (at Romney’s expense). Then new health insurance guidelines offering birth control to employees of Catholic schools and hospitals sparked a firestorm of opposition to the president (to Santorum’s advantage).

At a time when it seemed like Republicans had no real issues left to debate, Santorum suddenly had a plateful of them. His newfound prominence as a three-state winner (and re-dubbed Iowa victor) gave him a platform to expand on his view––first expressed in 2008––that Satan is threatening to take over the government; that American liberty is at a crossroads; that God belongs in the public square, contraception is a sin (but that’s your problem), and President Kennedy’s speech calling for the separation of church and state makes him want to throw up.

In three short weeks––weeks when Arizona and Michigan, Ohio and nine other states, and Mississippi and Alabama went to the polls–– Santorum resurrected all the social issues Romney had hoped to avoid, wrapped himself in the mantle of conservatism, and is now making the case that he is the only “true conservative” who can speak for the party.

He won the right to the title by beating Gingrich in Mississippi and Alabama. If they are emblematic of that conservatism, however, there should be some cause for concern because 80 percent of the Republicans who voted identify themselves as evangelicals, 60 percent don’t believe in evolution, and 45 percent are convinced Barack Obama is a Muslim. (Another 38 percent aren’t sure.) Is that the party Santorum really wants to represent when Republicans gather in Tampa this August to choose a nominee?

Is Gingrich in the Way?

There are many obstacles that stand in Santorum’s path to the nomination, not the least is Gingrich’s reluctance to step aside. Gingrich contends that two conservatives are better than one at the convention; and he makes the backward calculation that his staying in the race is the best way to keep Romney from a first round delegate victory.

But Gingrich himself does not come across as a credible candidate going forward. I followed him Wednesday on his first foray into Illinois after Tuesday’s primary, and it was like watching a mobile Potemkin village. His Secret Service detail is larger than the press corps following him; and he has no entourage to speak of aside from his wife Callista. At times, his campaign seems like their second honeymoon.

His first stop at the Rosemont convention center drew 63 people to a meeting room, where he gave a 30-minute speech on the promise of new technologies. His second was a private fundraiser at Barrington Country Club where maybe 50 people donated $500 to shake his hand. He ended the evening at a north suburban Lincoln Day dinner in Palatine where he wasn’t even the main draw. He was inserted at the last minute as a lead-in to the main speaker, Rep. Aaron Schock, a Romney supporter from Peoria.

Disorganized, but Inspired

Santorum’s campaign apparatus leaves much to be desired. His lack of money and delegate expertise caused him to miss the Virginia primary ballot and fail to field a full slate of delegates in Ohio. Going forward, he will also not be on the ballot in the District of Columbia and will have a full slate of delegates in only 14 of Illinois’s 18 congressional districts.

His campaign bumps along from one stop to the next, sometimes overflowing venues, sometimes not filling them, but the atmosphere is turning electric. He has something that Romney doesn’t seem able to beg, borrow or buy. People gravitate toward Santorum. He inspires them. They see in him a spokesman for their own discontent. If Santorum’s bandwagon stays on track, there will be plenty of time to dissect his philosophy––maybe in a second round of debates?––but there’s no denying he has, for the moment at least, brought excitement back to a process that was all but moribund.

Mid-Course Correction

“Maybe Romney should drop out. He’s the one who can’t seal the deal.” –– Paul Begala, Democratic consultant

Romney’s biggest problem is that nobody is invested in whether he wins or loses. Not his supporters, not his opponents, not the media. People are watching Romney to see how he will react to Santorum’s challenge, but it’s like watching a hamster in a cage. He’s worked so hard to keep his inner self to himself that no one is stepping forward to help him carry the campaign burden.

The button down approach that was so helpful at the beginning of the race now seems off-putting. Should Romney give more spontaneous press conferences? Find more comfortable settings for longer conversations on issues that can’t be resolved in 60 seconds? Go back to debates? Or stand up for moderation instead of running from it?

So much of the Romney campaign is a repeat of what he’s done before––a careful avoidance of saying anything controversial––that people have stopped listening. It’s the same generalities, the same jokes, the same stump speech. Who cares? Mitt Romney doesn’t need to be the most conservative man in the race; he can be the voice of moderation, or radical change, or innovative ideas. But he has to convey to the electorate a sense that when he speaks, he is speaking for them. That’s the visceral connection he has so much trouble making.

Right now, he’s just Mitt Romney talking about what Mitt Romney wants to see happen. And people are tired of hearing it.

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