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Republican Roller Coaster Ride Continues

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns Wednesday in Toledo, Ohio, ahead of Super Tuesday.

Ohio and Tennessee look to have the most impact next week. Obviously, Ohio is a large state that is crucial to Republican prospects in November. But more than that, it has come to typify small-town, mainstream conservative Republicanism (at least before the party’s sweet spot moved South). The winner of Ohio will have the kind of talking point coming out of Super Tuesday that will get plenty of attention.

I continue to believe that Tennessee also has the potential to be big.

The state’s Republicans are a schizophrenic lot, with heavily Republican Eastern Tennessee more populated by “establishment” Republicans and the central and western part of the state filled with more conservatives.

The state has seen many ideological GOP primaries for Senator and governor over the years, with “establishment” Republican candidates, such as current Gov. Bill Haslam and Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, often winning over more conservative opponents.

If Romney can squeeze out a win in Tennessee to go along with his expected victory in Virginia, his strong showing in the South suddenly makes it far more difficult for his opponents to lay out a successful strategy for overtaking him for the Republican nomination, no matter what happens in Alaska, North Dakota or Oklahoma next week.

All along, Romney’s cash and national focus have been seen by most insiders as huge advantages, and they have allowed him to rebound from weak showings. He has been able to stagger away from rough primary/caucus weeks (in South Carolina and on Feb. 7, when he fared poorly in three states) and pummel his opponents on TV in the upcoming states, never allowing them to get up a head of steam.

Those who say that this isn’t the best way to win a presidential nomination are entirely correct. But the alternative, losing, isn’t much of an option for Romney or his senior advisers.

Finally, it is hard not to wonder what the final outcome in Michigan might have been without Gingrich in the race. While he didn’t campaign there, he drew about 7 percent of the vote.

That was more than double the margin between Romney and Santorum.

Of course, it’s impossible to say with great assurance that Gingrich voters would have participated in the primary, and would have favored Santorum if the former Speaker had not been on the ballot. But a quick look at the exit polls show that his voters seemed to look more like Santorum’s — in terms of education, union membership, religiosity, geography and attitude toward the auto bailout — than like Romney’s supporters.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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