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For all the hoopla over former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (Pa.) Tuesday sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri (and the breathless coverage over at CNN on Tuesday night was a great example of hype trumping serious analysis), the dynamics of the Republican presidential race have changed little. While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems unable to actually win the nomination, it is still awfully difficult to see him losing it.
As others have already noted, Santorum becomes relevant again, which is a bigger problem for former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) than it is for Romney. Two conservatives will still divide the anti-Romney vote, making him look stronger than he really is.
Of course, while Romney remains the favorite to win his party’s nomination, his strategists can’t afford to delude themselves about their candidate’s appeal. The Romney campaign’s observation in a pre-primary memo that no delegates were selected on Tuesday is both accurate and totally irrelevant.
The early primaries and contests aren’t really about delegates as much as they are about credibility and momentum. Iowa’s “winner,” as reported by the media, was the candidate who finished first in a non-binding presidential preference vote — not a single delegate was selected on Jan. 3 — and the New Hampshire primary allocated a mere 12 delegates to the national convention, hardly a windfall for anyone.
Romney is trying to establish himself as the inevitable nominee, and losses, even in caucuses and primaries that involve no delegates, hurt his effort by keeping conservatives energized and forcing his campaign to fight each and every day to make sure neither Gingrich nor Santorum establish momentum in the contest.
That said, some of the analysis after Santorum’s showing on Tuesday is just plain silly.
Jon Ward, a senior political reporter at the Huffington Post, led his post-primary piece with the assertion that Romney’s weak showing — and it was weak — was “another harsh blow undermining his argument that he is the strongest Republican candidate for president.”
I’ve heard this argument before, and I think it’s, well, nuts.
In fact, Romney’s problems in the Missouri and South Carolina primaries, as well as in the Iowa and Minnesota caucuses, are precisely why he is, to use Ward’s words, “the strongest Republican candidate for president.”
Romney has plenty of weaknesses, but they are most pronounced in the race for the GOP nomination, not in the general election.