04/01/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2012

Campaign 2012: Tuesday's GOP Primary in Wisconsin May Not End the Race

If the Republican establishment has its way, next Tuesday's GOP primary in Wisconsin will be Mitt Romney's knock-out punch, the final blow that drives Rick Santorum from the race and allows the party to unify behind a single candidate for a tough, uphill fight against President Obama this November.

But if Santorum has his way, the primary will do just the opposite: highlight Romney's continuing inabiltiy to appeal to Main Street, and his lack of support among the party's religious faithful, belying his claim to be the GOP's most "electable" candidate.

Two weeks ago, Wisconsin primary polls showed Romney with a strong double-digit lead over Santorum. Now, according to one poll, he's up by just 10 points, and in another, his lead has shrunk to 5. The latest NBC/Marist poll has him ahead of Santorum by 7. Meanwhile, the remaining two candidates, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, have all but faded away.

What accounts for the contest's unexpected tightening? It's certainly not the evangelical vote. At just 38 percent in Wisconsin, it's way below average (50 percent) for this year's GOP contests. The Romney camp and much of the mainstream media have suggested that Santorum can only win in primaries where the evangelical vote completely dominates the primary electorate, with percentages anywhere from 64 percent in South Carolina to 77 percent in Mississippi. In theory that should mean that Santorum has no real chance of winning in Wisconsin, right? But in fact, he clearly does. The question is why.

Part of the reason is electoral "bounce". Santorum's coming off a huge 2-1 victory over Romney in Louisiana on March 24, where he beat the former Massachusetts governor with every voter group but two: those with post-graduate degrees, and those earning $200,000 or more. Santorum was a heavy favorite in Louisiana so his win came as no surprise. But the size and demographic sweep of his victory -- one of the most impressive of any candidate in the primary race thus far -- far exceeded expectations. It's put Romney back on the defensive.

Another factor seems to be the lingering fall-out from Romney campaign manager's "Etch-a-Sketch" remark, which seemed to imply that the candidate felt free to alter his political stances on the issues after winning the nomination in a bid to win over moderates. There's a truth in that comment, of course, but campaign managers aren't supposed to make it so transparent -- not with the primaries still underway and not with so many GOP voters still harboring doubts about Romney's real commitment to conservative principles and policies. In Louisiana, 19 percent of primary voters said the "Etch a Sketch" remark affected their vote, not a lot in absolute terms, perhaps, but in a close race, enough to make a difference.

A third factor is the sizable Catholic vote, which in previous primaries has tilted toward Romney rather sharply, while Santorum, the avowed Catholic, has completely won over Protestants. However, Santorum, on the advice of his campaign, has toned down some of his uber-Catholic rhetoric of late. Partly for that reason, perhaps, Santorum carried Catholic voters overwhelmingly in Louisiana (46%-30% over Romney). It was the first time that Santorum has managed that feat, and though all GOP voters, including Catholics are more conservative in the Deep South, Santorum may at last have found a way to make his religious faith work for him.

Against these potential advantages, however, lies the reality of Romney's enormous war chest, which has allowed him to outspend Santorum in Wisconsin on the order of 50-1. Another possible factor is the recent endorsement of Romney by Rep. Paul Ryan, a rising conservative star nationally who also represents one of Wisconsin's congressional districts. Ryan's begun actively campaigning with Romney, and doing his best to suggest -- against all evidence to the contrary -- that the former Massachusetts governor is as "true blue" a conservative as Ryan is. How much pull Ryan actually has with GOP voters statewide is debatable. Surrogates aren't always effective, especially when they arrive on the scene so late. But if all Ryan's presence does is stem the slide of some conservatives back to Santorum, it will have served its limited purpose.

Paradoxically, one factor that may not affect the outcome in the GOP primary race in Wisconsin is the June 5 recall election involving the state's controversial Republican governor Scott Walker. State interest in the recall is running so high that it's threatening to overshadow the GOP primary. Romney and Santorum have both made strong statements supporting Walker, but neither candidate is expected to gain a real edge, in part because Walker has declared himself far too preoccupied with his own political survival. Still, Walker, like Santorum, has enjoyed strong backing from the state's evangelical movement, and from the Religious Right nationally, giving Santorum, by sheer association, perhaps, a slight edge.

Clearly, the stakes for the GOP -- and Santorum especially -- are enormous. A win for Romney would confirm a pattern of Romney victories in Midwestern battleground states, to say nothing of adding to his already large delegate lead. While technically surmountable, a Romney "trifecta" -- Maryland and the District of Columbia also hold primaries on Tuesday -- would set the stage for Romney to sweep the next round of GOP contests on April 24, including the primary in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, with 72 delegates, as well as blockbuster New York, with 96. Santorum once led in Pennsylvania by a large margin but his lead has vanished. A loss there would almost surely precipitate his withdrawal.

But don't count Santorum out just yet. If he can stage a miraculous comeback and win Wisconsin, it will completely undermine the narrative that Romney's consolidating his control over the race. That's not likely to affect Santorum's chances in most of the remaining April contests (except perhaps Pennsylvania), but would allow him to continue fighting into May, where a number of contests, including Texas and North Carolina, still favor him slightly.

How would the GOP establishment respond to that prospect? A quiet panic will ensue, and desperate efforts will be launched either to push Santorum out of the race, or to force an unhappy marriage between the two candidates. It''s already underway, in fact Santorum, hedging his bet, perhaps, recently floated the idea of becoming Romney's running mate. And Romney, who previously discounted that option publicly and even disparaged Santorum as a "liberal" may be softening his opposition too.

A shotgun GOP candidate marriage? It's happened before. And this late in the game, with Republican chances of victory dwindling, it may be preferable to divorce, to say nothing of a politically-motivated abortion.