But as important as the win in Illinois was for cementing Team Romney's delegate realities, the most critical turn in the race wouldn't come until Wednesday, when Jeb Bush -- a critical member of the still-dreamed about group of GOP contenders that never were -- offered Mitt Romney his endorsement, and bestowed a new blessing from the Republican establishment. Bush personally delivered the news to Romney and his trusted aide, Eric Fehrnstrom.
"Well, Jeb, we're very glad to have your support! Ha. Ha." said Romney. "I think your endorsement could be a real GAME CHANGE."
"What are you doing there?" a perplexed Bush asked.
"What do you mean?"
"The way you said 'Game Change,' right there, like you were italicizing it, or something?"
"Oh!" said Romney, "That was nothing. Ha."
"And then you did, like, this take to an imaginary camera, or something?"
"Ha. Don't worry about it, Jeb!" Romney took a thoughtful pause. "Jeb Bush, eh? Is that French-Canadian, or something?"
"Not really," replied Bush. "I think we're from Texas? Anyway, I wanted you to see the draft of the statement I'll be giving out concerning this endorsement."
Fehrnstrom looked it over, and was immediately hit in his psychic solar plexus by what he read.
"I hate to be a nudge, here, Jeb. But the language, here ..." Ferhnstrom trailed off.
"What's wrong with it?" asked Bush.
Fehrnstrom cleared his throat and dove in. "Well, it's not too terribly enthusiastic, is it? You talk about how it's time to unify the party and come together around -- and I quote -- 'the guy who is basically going to win, anyway.'"
"I think that if you read on, you'll see I'm very full-throated in support for your candidate," countered Bush.
"Well, I'll tell you, Jeb, I'm reading further down, and I come to this section which you've titled, 'Making The Best Of It.'"
"Right! See. I call your candidate 'the best.'"
"And there's the way you keep saying 'your candidate,' that sort of troubles me," Fehrnstrom said, adding, "And I see the second page is just ten paragraphs of how great a vice president Marco Rubio would be."
"Gotta think about the long game, Eric."
"It's just that you seem boundlessly enthusiastic about Marco, and not so much into Mitt."
"Eric, I promise you, I am very excited about this endorsement."
"Jeb, everywhere Marco Rubio's name appears in your draft, it's written in red ink," Fehrnstrom said, pointedly. "And instead of the o's in his name, you've drawn hearts."
"I think you're reading into it," Jeb replied.
At this point, Romney interjected. "Let's not turn this into a thing, Eric. Here let me see it." Fehrnstrom handed him the draft statement, which Mitt hefted in the air and studied meticulously.
"Jeb," Romney enthused, "This is great. Just the right weight for an endorsement. We thank you."
"I'm glad to hear it," said Bush, relieved. "And look, guys, you can keep your own counsel on who your running mate will be. I just think that Marco is a solid conservative, a good spokesman for the party, and he could be a real game change for your ticket."
Romney immediately froze, mugging for an unseen eye offstage.
"You're doing it again."
The above passage, which we have imagined for "Game Change 2: The Changening" (the sequel to "Game Change," a book of invented scenes about the 2008 campaign), perfectly encapsulates the state of the race this week. Mitt Romney continues to win the slog through the primaries, and continues to accrue the delegates necessary to win the nomination.
But even as Romney wends his way to almost certain triumph, his favorable ratings continue to submerge. He's acceptable, but not particularly well-liked. The brain likes his odds in November, but the heart can't get very pitter-pattery about it. And Jeb's endorsement sort of underscores this. What reason does he cite for endorsing Romney? He leads with this: "Primary elections have been held in thirty-four states." Translation: "This is pretty much going to happen, so, meh ... I guess."
Meanwhile, the candidate that appeals most to the conservative heart, Rick Santorum, may be growing in the estimation of voters, but -- well ... primary elections have been held in thirty-four states, you know? Santorum may have peaked at the right time to become Romney's main co-competitor, but it doesn't look like he did it early enough to actually win. With time running out and opportunities drying up, the Santorum campaign released its own version of delegate math in an effort to convince the media of his viability. But it was pretty clear, upon a cursory examination, that the Santorum team's logic was mostly constructed from gossamer and the daydreams of kittens.
A lot of what could undermine Santorum's reasoning played out in Missouri, where Mitt Romney's alliance with Ron Paul managed to rob Santorum of delegates that he would have liked to have out of a state he won. But Santorum's cash-strapped campaign had trouble competing with Romney and Paul's well-oiled machines. And yet! The mere fact that Romney needed help from Paul only proved what Santorum's been saying all along -- that Romney's a weak candidate who's growing weaker and who can't earn the nomination on his own merits.
But there's nothing to be done but look ahead. Romney sees a slew of eminently winnable states on April 24th as his next best chance to clear the race of the dead weight. Santorum looks ahead to a more immediate contest in Louisiana, where he hopes a big popular vote win will play louder than an almost certain tiny share of the delegates. And Newt Gingrich? He's looking all the way ahead to Tampa, where he hopes he can tear everyone's hopes asunder with his knack for sowing discord. That's where we are.
Elsewhere, Gingrich tried to feud with a film star, Gary Johnson outlined some bold promises, Rick Santorum got rooked by the media, a pair of long-shots won consolation prizes in Puerto Rico, and the Romney camp said something it might regret -- and we're not referring to "Etch a Sketch." For all your campaign news and notes, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of March 23, 2012.
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