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Wins, Delegates and the Long GOP Fight Ahead

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Mitt Romney came in third Tuesday in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. But the chatter that the losses were bad news for the former governor doesn’t ring true, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

After the political roller coaster that we’ve seen over the past year, you would think that veteran observers (or at least people on television) would use a little wider perspective in evaluating and explaining Tuesday’s GOP results. I don’t expect the candidates to do that because they are all about regurgitating a message and deluding themselves to believe that they can and will win. They have to do that each morning and begin their campaign grind.

Romney would love to knock out his rivals, broaden his coalition and sweep quickly to the GOP nomination. But none of that is happening, and to expect it to change this past Tuesday or next Tuesday is simply unrealistic.

That doesn’t change the reality, though. Romney remains far ahead in delegates, even after most states in the South have had their primaries. Because the calendar still includes plenty of states with large urban and suburban Republican populations and more moderate voters, and with the former governor still having the most resources and organization, Romney remains the solid favorite for the Republican nomination. It will be messy — it already is — but that’s a different matter.

While the early primaries and caucuses were about wins and losses as candidates tried to create some momentum, the GOP race is now a long grind of accumulating delegates. And as the Romney folks understood all along, delegates from Guam and American Samoa count just as much as delegates from Alabama.

Does the long fight damage the Republican Party? Of course it’s a problem, not an asset.

Yes, the fight in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton exposed a fracture in the Democratic Party — between African-Americans and upscale white liberals on one side and working-class white voters on the other — but the contest for the Democratic nomination lacked the downright meanness that is already apparent in this year’s GOP battle.

The Republicans are calling each other liars, and the bitterness between the three leading candidates is palpable. In addition, the existence of super PACs, and the differences in the candidates’ resources, has ratcheted up the rhetoric and the feelings of unfairness.

Moreover, the 2008 Democratic race took place after eight years of President George W. Bush, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing increased criticism, America’s banking system teetering and economic forecasts growing increasingly gloomy. Americans were hungry for change, and the Democrats were battling over two interesting, talented voices for that change.

This year’s GOP field is simply less imposing than the 2008 Democratic field. Romney has weaknesses, but at least he crosses the threshold of credibility as a candidate for president. Most of the other Republican hopefuls either fell quickly by the wayside or have yet to demonstrate they have the broad appeal needed to win the White House.

The fight between Romney, Santorum and Gingrich has dominated the national media, but not in a good way. Most of what we have learned about the candidates is not favorable — Romney’s tax rate, his wife’s two Cadillacs, Santorum’s views on birth control and Gingrich’s ego. No wonder Romney’s personal ratings have suffered over the past few months.

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