Several hours removed from the final Super Tuesday contest being called in Alaska for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the long, drawn-out, momentum-less Republican presidential primary campaign appears as protracted as ever.
Romney won six of the 10 contests, but only narrowly survived in Ohio with a 38 percent to 37 percent victory over former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) — and the results of the Buckeye State campaign are shaping the political analysis of events. Romney could have delivered a symbolic knock-out blow to Santorum with a victory in the realm of 4 points or more. But the tight outcome there, combined with Santorum's wins in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee have revived the narrative — one somewhat quashed last week after Romney victories in Arizona and Michigan — that Romney can't close the deal and that at least one of his opponents is well-positioned for an upset.
But despite this latest round of speculation, the fundamentals of the 2012 Republican presidential primary, as they came into view following Romney's resounding Florida victory in January, have not changed. Romney remains the most likely candidate to garner the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination and the right to face President Barack Obama in the fall. His weaknesses are well-known and some remain as a concern for his prospects. He is not emotionally inspiring, is viewed suspiciously by many movement conservatives and self-described very conservative voters and he hasn't been able to translate big victories in key states (New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan) into momentum going forward, as have previous GOP frontrunners.
Yet his opponents have similar problems, all of which were on display on Super Tuesday and bode particularly ill for them going forward. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich killed in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress until the late 1990s, but it was his only victory since South Carolina. He finished behind Romney in Oklahoma and Tennessee on Tuesday. As for Gingrich's Georgia win, it should be treated as an afterthought, no more significant than Romney's win in Massachusetts, the state where he served as governor from 2002 to 2006.
Santorum's near miss in Ohio last night, as impressive as it was for a guy with a shoestring campaign and no infrastructure or organization, speaks exactly to the former Senator's glaring weakness. Despite previous unexpected victories, first in Iowa and then in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, he has not built a national presidential campaign organization capable of pivoting to the general election and taking on the Obama machine, much less holding on to the double-digit lead in the polls in Ohio against "weak" Romney that he acquired coming out of his Feb. 7 trifecta.
Santorum understandably loves to talk up his underdog effort against Romney. He has gained traction with his claim that Romney's victories are hollow — the result of having more money and a deeper organization — and that the governor would lose in a fair fight. But politics isn't fair, and winning the presidency requires raising lots of money and building a sophisticated campaign organization. This argument, while appealing to some Republicans unhappy with Romney, will not work with voters in the general election, and Santorum's talent for connecting emotionally with some of the key voting blocs that will be targeted in the fall won't matter if he doesn't have the money and organization to get his message out. Now is the time to build that foundation, and Santorum has yet to demonstrate progress on this side of the ledger.
As Republican strategists Ed Rollins and Steve Schmidt told me for a story published Feb. 27, good candidates alone do not win presidential campaigns. It also takes an effective campaign organization that can run a national race.