Last week, after the dust had settled on Super Tuesday, we surmised that you couldn't really call the 2012 GOP primary contest a battle between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Rather, it had become a race between Mitt Romney and a contested convention.
Well, we may have performed inception, folks. Our little idea could be on its way to changing everything. At the moment, we're starting to see the thought of post-June wranglings, brokered deals, even the possibility of a bona fide floor fight start to creep into the minds and campaigns of Romney's opponents. Now, they're still facing very long odds -- Romney's path to a clean 1,144-to-notch the nomination delegate count remains the likeliest outcome of the primaries. And even if Romney can't get there by the time the curtain comes down on the final contests, GOP party bigwigs have plenty of time to hash out a deal that ensures his coronation. So don't go wild on InTrade betting on a tilt in Tampa just yet.
Where the idea currently lives is in the mind's eye of Romney's opponents, who all have to face the reality of his advantage, weigh their own wants and needs, and game out the best possibility of success.
If you're Ron Paul, convention wrangling is what you're all about, only you're doing it at all the state conventions that have yet to meet and decide what to do about the delegates voted out of their early caucuses. This is where Paul wants to cause the most trouble -- grabbing unexpected delegates, messing with his competitors' projections. But Paul's long game isn't about burning bridges -- he wants to deepen the connection between the movement he's built and the Republican Party. So he'll probably use what leverage he has long before delegates arrive in Tampa. In that way, he cements a legacy for others to follow. Like his son. Or, like the many Paul acolytes who are getting a master class in presidential politics in the caucus states.
By contrast, Newt Gingrich has no intention of finishing this battle with a genial deal reached ahead of the convention -- he's out for pure havoc. He's already made it clear that his aim is to stop Mitt Romney from reaching the nomination. But that doesn't really capture it all. According to Robert Costa's "go read the whole thing right now" latest, Gingrich is looking to do something historic -- and it's no less than sowing total "convention chaos."
Coupled with Gingrich's ambition to be a Reagan-like player at the Tampa convention is a lingering sense that this presidential campaign could easily be his last. At 68 years old, he is keen to plod on because, quite simply, he relishes being in the arena -- not merely sitting outside of it, talking about politics on cable news, as he did for the past decade.
Over the past few weeks, [conservative activist Richard] Viguerie has been calling his influential friends within the conservative movement, asking them to join with him in urging their old friend to respectfully withdraw. But after working the phones, he is resigned to the fact that Gingrich will make this decision alone, and probably at the last possible moment. "I'm not optimistic that he's going to get out anytime soon," he says wistfully. "He's hoping for a deadlocked convention -- for lightning to strike."
And then you have Rick Santorum. He's not looking to summon lightning from the skies, but he nevertheless has correctly surmised that he'll need an "act of God" to win the nomination. Though ironically, he's the guy who's actually in the position to pull off Newt Gingrich's "stop Romney" strategy. But as George Stephanopoulos points out, he "would have to basically sweep all the big states left" to pull it off:
Illinois next week. (And even that win might not get him most of the delegates because Santorum’s off the ballot in a few districts.)
Then he needs upsets in Wisconsin and Maryland on April 3rd – plus a sweep of New York and Pennsylvania at the end of the month.
In May, he’d need to win big on the 8th: Indiana, West Virginia and North Carolina – and hope that gives him enough momentum to win three of the five contests on June 5th. One of those wins would have to be either New Jersey or California.
All that would cripple Romney heading to Tampa.
But would Santorum go with Gingrich's nuclear option at the convention? Here's where things get murkier. Not long ago, Santorum might have been inclined to force the issue. As recently at this week, he was imagining that he might be the candidate to finally catalyze a union of conservatives on the convention floor. But while Santorum's success hasn't provided him with a clear path to the nomination, it's nevertheless provided him with some intriguing options: talk of being next in line in 2016 (or 2020), as well as talk of being on the ticket. Those prospects could convince him that staging a melee in Tampa is not in his best interests.
Of course, Mitt Romney has an entirely different take on all of this: "Look, we're not going to go to a brokered convention." He's probably right. He hopes so, anyway.
Elsewhere, Ron Paul achieved a historic win that was also somehow a blowout loss, Gary Johnson made plans to break bread with a key kingmaker, Mitt Romney's battles continue to put strain on his warchest, Rick Santorum got snippy with Fox News, and does anyone know what was going on with President Obama's polling this week? Probably something terrible/wonderful that will make him sorry/grateful when his campaign reaches its regretful/happy conclusion. For all the good things getting better and the bad things getting worse, please enter the Speculatron for the week of March 16, 2012.
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