For the umpteenth time and counting, pundits and politicians -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- are predicting Mitt Romney's "inevitability" as the GOP nominee.
When will these people learn?
Yes, the former Massachusetts governor just scored a big win in Illinois -- but is anyone really surprised? No one seriously expected his rival Rick Santorum to triumph in a state with a relatively low percentage of white evangelical voters, just 41 percent, far below the 60 percent in Iowa, or the 70 percent or more in Alabama and Mississippi, three other states where Santorum has won.
So, why all the fuss?
Because, say the pundits, Santorum has yet to win on Romney's "turf" -- meaning the big urbanized states "up North" -- and unless he does, he won't be able to counter Romney's claim of broad party support and "electability."
Well, guess what? Romney has yet to win on Santorum's own version of home "turf" -- the South. Romney's lost all 6 competitive Southern contests (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and South Carolina) and his victory in a seventh -- Virginia -- has been completely discounted because his only opponent there was libertarian Ron Paul.
Even so, Romney managed to win just 59 percent of the primary vote to Paul's 41 percent, an anemic performance against a candidate that no one considers a serious contender for the nomination. Pre-primary polls had suggested that Santorum was running neck-and-neck with Romney -- with even higher favorability ratings -- and might well have won the contest had he managed to get his name on the ballot.
When has a GOP candidate captured his party's nomination without winning at least one Southern primary? It's never happened. John McCain nearly lost South Carolina to Mike Huckabee in 2008, and if he had, he might well have lost the nomination that year. Huckabee ended up cleaning up in the Deep South, winning six primaries, in addition to upsetting Romney in Iowa, much as Santorum did earlier this year once the ballots were recounted.
In fact, it's often forgotten, but every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has first won in South Carolina. It's the traditional "bellwether" state, in part because its demographics perhaps best reflect the GOP electorate. And this year, Newt Gingrich beat Romney there so badly that Romney's arguably never fully recovered, despite having destroyed Gingrich's own candidacy with massive negative ad blitzes in Florida and subsequent primaries.
Is there any place in the South that Romney might actually still win? As things stand now, probably not. Santorum still has a large double-digit lead in this Saturday's primary in Louisiana, where a big win is likely to challenge the Romney "inevitability" thesis once again
And looking ahead, Santorum is still extremely well-positioned to haul in large numbers of delegates in big Southern states like North Carolina and Texas, where he also enjoys a large lead in the polls. North Carolina has emerged as a key battleground state in the general election and a victory there could be especially damaging to Romney's claim that he can unify the party and prevail against Obama in the fall.
Make no mistake: Romney has a large delegate lead over the rest of the field, and has accumulated close to 60 percent of the delegates committed thus far. And that's about half of the 1,114 delegates he'd need to wrap up the nomination before the convention in August. Moreover, he just received a strong endorsement from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the man that many thought might eventually emerge as the GOP "dark horse" in the event of a deadlocked convention.
But symbolism -- and Romney taking points -- aside, this race simply isn't over yet. Two weeks ago, Santorum was more or less tied with Romney in head-to-head polling with Obama, but more tellingly, perhaps, he was outperforming Romney in head-to-head polling with Obama in Ohio, Florida and other critical swing states that the GOP must win to prevail in November.
Are the stakes higher than ever? Absolutely. The pressure on Santorum, to say nothing of Gingrich, to drop out, is mounting. And should Romney somehow pull out a win this Saturday in Louisiana, which some observers think may still be possible, it would be a devastating blow to Santorum, and quite possibly, the de facto end of the race.
But don't count on it. Even in Romney-friendly Illinois, nearly 40 percent of GOP voters still aren't happy with their candidate choices, and most say a prolonged GOP race doesn't bother them. Look for the GOP to continue its hard, dispirited and increasingly divisive primary slog through May, with Santorum, especially, still holding out for yet another Romney stumble or a gaffe, a further decline in Obama's fortunes, and a possible recasting of the issues in his favor.
They say, "It ain't over 'til the Fat Lady sings." Well, apparently, she's still running late.