After the shock of last night’s three Republican contests wore off a little bit today, I had a rather intense argument with a friend who happens to be a Romney supporter. (In case you missed it: Rick Santorum swept, winning Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri.) The conversation started with him telling me “Romney didn’t win any states last night because he didn’t try.” Or something like that. His argument was basically that Romney could have competed–and won–any or all of the three states up for grabs last night, if he had wanted to, but he decided not to spend the money.
I told my friend, if Mitt Romney wants to be the Republican nominee, he had better be prepared to leave it all on the field. We can’t have any of this “Well, I could’ve competed in [insert swing state], but I decided not to.” If we have any chance of beating Obama, we must have a fighter; someone who will fight for every vote. (To those who say, ‘that would never happen,’ recall in 2008 when Romney pundit John McCain essentially conceded Michigan to Obama.)
My friend then rebutted by telling me Gingrich did the same thing, essentially punting on yesterday’s primaries. The key difference is that Gingrich has nowhere near Romney’s resources, nor has he been marked ‘the inevitable candidate.’ Gingrich made a strategic decision to place his chips elsewhere in order to extend his campaign. Romney could have easily competed in all three states and still had enough money to advance. But he didn’t. And he chose poorly. Instead of Romney pulling away from the pack and advancing his ‘inevitability’ argument, Rick Santorum is the story, and Romney’s inevitability is fading.
Santorum beat Romney by nearly 30% in Minnesota, by the way–where Romney has been heralding support from the state’s former governor Tim Pawlenty. He finished third, behind Ron Paul.
So do I think that Santorum is a legitimate threat to Romney? Maybe. Do I think Romney is beatable? Absolutely. Whether it is Santorum or Gingrich, it is clear that Romney can be defeated. The question will be how long the field remains at four, and can one of these candidates overtake Romney once and for all with three Romney alternatives in the race?
The bottom line is this: Romney is anything but inevitable and his supporters know it, otherwise they wouldn’t be spinning so hard in his favor. That’s not to say he is not still formidable–Santorum is about to be absolutely assaulted with attack ads from Romney & his PAC–but he still has a long road to the nomination. After getting trounced in South Carolina by Gingrich, Romney was starting to rebuild some steam, coming off key victories in Florida & Nevada. But Santorum’s trifecta on Tuesday night has put the brakes on Romney’s train once again.
Romney just can’t seem to break away from the pack, and every time he loses a contest, his perceived destiny as the GOP nominee seems less likely. Last night may have been the end of inevitability.