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Romney won a majority of the Nevada caucus vote and finished first in the New Hampshire and Florida primaries, getting more votes in each than Gingrich and Santorum combined. And he finished a very strong second in Iowa because the most conservative voters split their votes among a number of candidates.
Romney also has the most money and the best organization, and his message has the broadest appeal, both among Republicans and among the electorate at large. And he has finished first or second in eight of the first nine contests, a far better showing than any of his rivals.
So the former governor, for all his weaknesses and shortcomings, remains the favorite for the GOP nomination.
If conservatives are going to have any chance to stop Romney from winning the nod, they’ll need to unite behind a single candidate. Even having just two candidates playing to evangelicals and the most conservative elements of the party enhances Romney’s chances of winning upcoming primaries.
After South Carolina, Gingrich appeared to be the non-Romney candidate with the best chance of seriously contesting Romney for the nomination. But now, Santorum has momentum. He has won four contests and finally is raising money. Gingrich has just a single victory and remains unacceptable to many in his own party.
While most Republican insiders wouldn’t pick the former Pennsylvania Senator as their party’s preferred presidential standard-bearer, so far there is little evidence that they would view his nomination as anything close to as dangerous as a Gingrich victory (though that could be because they haven’t really considered the possibility of Santorum as the party’s nominee).
So, I’m back yet again to the initial question of the column: Just how much does Gingrich hate Romney?
Is his personal ambition so strong that he will remain in the race even though that will increase the chances that Romney will be nominated? Or is his bitterness and animosity toward the former Massachusetts governor so deep that he is willing to put aside his personal ambitions and yield the spotlight, in which he clearly revels?
It isn’t clear that a one-on-one race between Romney and Gingrich or Romney and Santorum would deny Romney the GOP nomination. But a three-way contest that continues through March almost certainly benefits Romney, increasing the chances that he will be nominated in Tampa.
So what’s worse to Gingrich, losing the nomination or watching Romney get it?
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.