In GOP Presidential Race, Fat Lady Finally Sings

by Stuart Rothenberg March 30, 2012 · 9:00 AM EDT

Finally, it’s over. The fight for the GOP nomination, that is.

It’s only March, but it seems as if the GOP race for president has been going on for an eternity. Now, however, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has won his party’s nomination and the right to take on President Barack Obama in the fall.

No, not everyone agrees that the race is over. Like when a baseball team leads the league by 20 games in August, there is still a statistical chance it could lose the race.

The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies had the National League pennant locked up until they lost it, and the 2011 Boston Red Sox were assured of at least the wild card until they weren’t. So, sure, the unthinkable happens.

Although Romney has not yet accumulated the necessary 1,144 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August in Tampa, Fla., the chances are evaporating — make that have evaporated — that he can be denied his party’s nomination.

Or, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote a few days ago, “the ‘walking dead’ phase of the Republican primary is upon us.”

RNC delegate counts by the Associated Press, NBC and CNN all show Romney not only leading second-place Rick Santorum comfortably — by 200 to 300 delegates, depending on the media organization — but also having more delegates than the former Pennsylvania Senator, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) combined.

While Romney has been unable to broaden his appeal to pile up increasingly large percentages of delegates, Santorum has also been unable to do so. Nobody ever seems to mention that.

Santorum continues to win rural voters, evangelicals and other highly religious voters and the most conservative voters. But that’s it. He is likely to win states with large percentages of those kinds of voters, but he can’t win states with fewer religious and fewer ideological voters.

Santorum certainly has victories ahead, but that won’t change the dynamic of the race.

The GOP calendar still includes Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico, Montana and South Dakota — states just like those where Santorum has already run well and won.

But the calendar also includes Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Utah — states where Romney will win.

And there are some states where the outcomes are less certain.

The steady drumbeat of announcements of support for Romney from party insiders (or acknowledgements from uncommitted current and former officeholders that he will be the party’s nominee) confirms what we are already seeing and hearing from members of the Republican National Committee who will be delegates — that they are falling in line behind Romney.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed him. South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint said the race is over and the time has come for the party to unite. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, an ex-RNC chairman, said Romney has all but locked up the nomination.

You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to understand what is happening.

The increased testiness of Santorum and Gingrich surely reflect their inability to derail Romney.

Santorum’s explosion at New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny may resonate well with conservatives who see a liberal behind every newspaper headline, but it also reflects the frustration that Santorum is feeling as the calendar advances without him gaining ground on Romney.

Santorum and Gingrich complain about Romney’s financial advantage and aggressive campaign tactics. He is outspending them 2-1, 4-1 or even 10-1, they argue. They are right, of course, that Romney wouldn’t be doing as well with delegates if his campaign were broke and if he didn’t have a heavily funded super PAC to move voter sentiment.

But so what? We all knew money would be a requirement to win the nomination, and whining about it the way Gingrich and Santorum do is the strategy of losers who suddenly find the rules of the game they entered unfair.

You can bet Santorum and Gingrich would take advantage without a second’s hesitation if they had the financial advantage.

Candidates who are losing invariably find many scapegoats. They sound desperate. Candidates who are winning stay on message and exude confidence.

Acknowledging the obvious — that the race is over — takes away nothing from Santorum, who worked hard to become the alternative to Romney, performed well in the debates and made some smart tactical choices about where to fight.

Gingrich had his moments, too, though his campaign was largely a mirage and little more than a reflection of the candidate’s personality. While insisting that he would be the nominee, Gingrich wrote off key states and lacked the resources to become relevant.

Romney has not won the Republican nomination because he has been a perfect candidate or because he has learned how to appeal to primary voters who were initially suspicious of him. He won because he had a well-funded, national campaign that could destroy his opponents, respond to attacks at a moment’s notice and recover from mistakes.

Those assets may or may not allow him to win in November. But they allowed him to win the nomination.

For Romney, at least, the fat lady’s voice is mellifluous.