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What Could Be Next in the Race for President?

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Former Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t compete in Illinois and finished fourth there after a weak third in Ohio. He’s really no longer a factor for the GOP nomination.

Mr. Irrelevant is the term given to the last player selected in the NFL draft, a reflection of the long odds he faces in making an NFL roster. Increasingly, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has become the Mr. Irrelevant in the GOP race for the presidential nomination.

Gingrich wonít get out of the race, but he wonít fight for the nomination either. He has limited himself to competing here and there so that he can make an increasingly bizarre, out-of-touch primary night speech about his vision and his prospects.

If you donít compete in Illinois and finish a weak fourth there (behind even Texas Rep. Ron Paul) after a weak third in Ohio (where you received 15 percent of the vote), you really arenít a factor for the GOP nomination. Itís as simple as that. Oh, and you donít deserve to have the cable networks cover your speeches, either.

A little more than a month ago in this space, I asked, ďJust How Much Does Gingrich Hate Romney?Ē The answer now seems pretty obvious: not as much as he loves running for president.

Gingrichís exit a few weeks ago might not have benefited Rick Santorum enough to help the former Pennsylvania Senator overtake Mitt Romney, but at least a two-person contest would have offered the GOP a clean, clear choice. Now, itís getting too late for a possible one-on-one race to matter.

The only hope for the anti-Romney forces now seems to be a credentials fight, which certainly could still occur. While Florida was penalized for jumping into the early primary/caucus window, it also violated party rules by assigning delegates on a winner-take-all basis, so a credentials fight over that easily could occur.

Thatís one reason Romney needs to wrap up the nomination sooner rather than later. Not only would a credentials fight make the partyís internal division even deeper and more difficult to heal, it could be a problem for the former Massachusetts governor if he is well short of the delegates he needs to lock up the nomination.

Still, the division in the GOP ranks shows no sign of healing soon. Romney continues to run well among upscale voters, non-evangelicals, less conservative Republicans and those who live in urban and suburban areas. He still is faring poorly among rural voters, the most conservative Republicans and evangelicals. It has been that way in almost every state, and there is nothing he can do about it. Nothing.

Romney has spent four years insisting that he is conservative, but nobody believes him.

It is no surprise that evangelical conservatives donít believe him, but itís noteworthy that Romneyís own supporters also donít believe him.

Thatís why his supporters are still supporting him after months, even years, of Romney trying to position himself to the right. Romney supporters figure that all of his conservative rhetoric on social issues and immigration is just a play for conservative voters in the primary, so they ignore it and figure heíll be a mainstream, business conservative as the GOP nominee. And that suits them just fine.

The next big event Iím watching for isnít the next primary but the next NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Since the late February/early March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll came out showing the ďright trackĒ poll number continuing to grow and the presidentís job approval hitting 50 percent, three other surveys ó ABC News/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times and Fox News ó have come out showing a very different trend.

All three were conducted only a week or so after the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

In all three, President Barack Obamaís numbers were softening, not strengthening, and he looked to be in worse shape for the general election.

If the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll confirms what the other three showed, itís obviously terrible news for the White House.

Most observers have assumed that a growing economy would improve the presidentís re-election prospects (dramatically if the improvement in unemployment and consumer confidence were strong enough), but weaker Obama numbers in the face of better economic numbers ó possibly made irrelevant by higher gas prices and talk of a war in the Middle East ó would suggest that opposition to the president is quicker to harden than previously thought.

While Democrats can take advantage of the GOPís poor image and of Romneyís wealth and stiffness to portray the general election as a fight for the middle class against the rich, Romney is still best positioned to make the election a referendum on Obama, on the presidentís performance over the past four years and on the publicís confidence (or lack of confidence) about the results of a second Obama term.

Given that the 2012 presidential contest still looks as if it will turn on the decisions of swing voters in 10 states, Novemberís results are not at all a foregone conclusion.

Correction: My last column on the prospects of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) incorrectly stated that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Mitt Romney after Texas Gov. Rick Perryís exit from the GOP race. In fact, Jindal has not endorsed any candidate since Perry left the race.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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