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Republican Roller Coaster Ride Continues

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns Wednesday in Toledo, Ohio, ahead of Super Tuesday.

Has the Republican race reached a tipping point, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney re-establishing himself as the solid favorite for the Republican nomination and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) slipping awfully close to the “long shot” category? Probably.

Romney has won four of the five primaries that involved delegates, losing only South Carolina to Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor has now won a state in New England (New Hampshire), two Sunbelt states (Arizona and Florida) and a large, Midwest state (Michigan).

Add to Romney’s haul two caucus states ­— one in New England (Maine) and another in the West (Nevada) — and you have a map that suggests at least some national appeal, as well as the ability to win other GOP contests across the country.

Of course, it’s easy to undermine that view by pointing out that Michigan is Romney’s home state (and he won it only narrowly) and that one-quarter of GOP caucus attendees in Nevada were Mormon.

And exit polling from Michigan generally found that Romney hasn’t yet broadened his appeal dramatically with the GOP. He continues to have significant problems in rural areas, among religious voters and downscale voters and, of course, among the most conservative Republicans.

Still, for all of the hoopla about conservative opposition to Romney, Gingrich and Santorum together have won one primary involving delegates (South Carolina), one primary that was a mere beauty contest (Missouri) and three caucuses (Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado).

Santorum, Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) have been picking up delegates along the way, and the Republican calendar gives them each a chance for a big victory over the next couple of weeks. But unless they win a state that seems out of their comfort zone — Ohio is the obvious example of a state that could change the psychology of the Republican contest yet again — their victories aren’t likely to fundamentally change the race’s dynamic. And changing the fundamental dynamic is essential for Santorum, who now seems to be the only credible alternative to Romney.

Winning Georgia alone next week isn’t likely to jump-start the Gingrich campaign. That victory will be written off as predictable. He’ll need other wins. Santorum also needs more than a win or two to rebuild some momentum.

Romney would seem to start with three states in the bank — Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, where only he and Paul made the ballot — so victories in even a few more states, as long as one of them is named Ohio, would guarantee a strong Super Tuesday showing.

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