As a young football fan, I learned that my team was doomed once the television announcers started to thank the producers, directors, and cameramen. They could interrupt the play-by-play because nothing was likely to happen on the field to spark the magical comeback I was hoping for. The opposing quarterback, untroubled by madness or sorcery, would take a knee, and the clock would run out.
Tonight, Mitt Romney swept the primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, banking his 25th win out of 37 contests. He picked up 83 delegates to Rick Santorum's nine. (This figure has been updated. An earlier version reflected incomplete results.)
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Technically, there is still time on the clock—19 contests to go—and there are undoubtedly some Santorum fans in their knit caps and team jerseys hoping the game will turn around. But it’s over. Mitt Romney's rivals aren’t going to catch him. He is hundreds of delegates ahead and gaining more with every contest. In Wisconsin, according to exit polls, 8 out of 10 voters said Romney would be the eventual nominee. Even two-thirds of those who voted for Santorum agreed with that prediction.
The only consistent foe Mitt Romney has faced in the GOP primaries has been apathy. Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum have—at one time or another—carried the banner of the vocal minority that is uneasy with Romney, but none of them could build a big and durable enough coalition to beat him. These newest victories were merely a capstone on a move to rally behind Romney that has been underway since his big win in Illinois. Luminaries from all factions of the party have now called on Republicans to unite and turn their attention to beating Barack Obama. In the national Gallup poll, Romney is ahead of Santorum by 15 points.
The battle for the general election is escalating with Obama and Romney giving speeches that would still be pitch-perfect if they were given in October. The ad wars are heating up, too. This is the first week the president's campaign directly criticized Romney by name in an advertisement. No one with heft in the Republican side has stopped the stampede to say, “Hold on, let this primary play out.”
With no rousing alternative to Romney, apathy was not enough to defeat him. Even as he approaches the finish line, excitement doesn’t seem to be building. His party is hoping that Obama’s record will hand Romney a victory. It’s a shaky platform on which Romney begins his general election campaign.
Romney has two immediate repair jobs to do. He must unite his party, and he must heal his badly battered image with key voting blocs: independent voters, women, Hispanics, and the working class.
If Santorum doesn’t get out and picks up some pyrrhic victories in the South, Romney could enter the general election with as many or more defeats than any other Republican nominee since Gerald Ford lost 23 primary contests to Ronald Reagan in 1976. Recent endorsements from Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Jim DeMint have helped close the door on the nominating process, but they have been of the kiss-and-run variety usually reserved for a game of spin the bottle. Sen. Marco Rubio told the Daily Caller, "There are a lot of other people out there that some of us wish had run for president—but they didn't.” Conservative leader Al Cardenas recently wrote an op-ed backing Romney. He said the GOP primary was turning into an "Are we there yet?" car ride. This is not true of all of Romney’s endorsements, however. Some of his recent supporters actually seem like they want him to be president.
Still, of the two repair jobs, that one is easier. Movement conservatives may be tepid about Mitt Romney, but they really dislike Barack Obama. And the president keeps reminding them why. His promise to Dmitri Medvedev that he will have "more flexibility" after the election suggests that he's willing to be more honest with our rivals than the American people. The president's campaign against Mitt Romney will revolve around the charge that Romney says whatever is convenient at the political moment. President Obama was telegraphing to the Russians that during election time he'll behave the same way. Profligate spending at the General Services Administration doesn’t hurt Romney’s campaign, either. That scandal will keep the Tea Party energized for months.