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.
But that might not be enough to help Romney. Mitt Romney needs to improve his lot with swing voters, and right now the polls suggest he's in the worst position of any candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. Fifty-two percent of independent voters view Romney unfavorably, and only 35 percent view him favorably, according to a recent Washington Post poll. President Obama has a 50-46 favorable-to-unfavorable rating with independents. Among women, a key voting bloc, Obama has an 18 point lead over Romney in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll. Republican presidential candidates usually do worse with female voters, but this is suitcase-on-the-front-lawn bad.
And women aren’t the only bad news for Mitt. A CNN survey showed Obama leading Romney 54 percent to 43 percent nationally, up five points from February. In the Gallup swing-state poll, he is up 51 to 42 over Romney.
How does Romney fix all of this? He can pray that Obama stumbles and the economy stops improving. Another way is to mount some kind of Clinton-like comeback. That would require a set of political pirouettes that Mitt Romney has never shown the legs for. He lacks Bill Clinton's raw political skill, and he also lacks Clinton’s biography. In 1992, the Clinton team could re-introduce the Arkansas governor as the son of a single mom from modest roots. Romney appears scared of patches of his biography. His wife seems great, but so did Elizabeth Dole and Tipper Gore, who were also called on to bedazzle voters into overcoming their doubts about their husbands.
Romney has another hurdle: He can’t take advantage of the ideological flexibility that allows primary candidates to refashion themselves as general election candidates because he has already shifted on everything from abortion to his status as a Republican to his advocacy for gay rights.
All candidates try to shed the pointed views they held during the primaries or at least downplay them. In 2008, Obama's top economic adviser Austan Goolsbee quietly told a Canadian official that his boss was merely posturing when he promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, that it was just talk to rile up the base and he didn't really mean it. The Obama team had to insist he'd never do such a thing. Of course, as Goolsbee predicted, Obama never followed through on his primary campaign rhetoric.
Romney can’t do this. The press and the Democrats have him so pinned down, an aide can't say “Etch A Sketch” without having it become the new symbol for Romney's lack of core convictions. When Ann Romney said she was going to "unzip the real Romney," and introduce him to Americans, it threatened to animate this storyline again.
The president called out Romney by name Tuesday in his critique of Paul Ryan’s budget, a continuation of Joe Biden’s effort the week before to tie the front-runner to the Republican Congress. As Ezra Klein points out, Romney has tried to stay vague on the details of his proposals, and Obama is trying to staple Romney to the highly detailed plan that he has endorsed. If, as the nominee, Romney tries to suggest he might do something different from Ryan while still supporting it—as he did last year with the congressman’s aggressive plan for restructuring Medicare—the Obama campaign will pounce. What normally might be seen as a garden-variety political act of “flexibility” might quickly be seen as another example of Romney’s lack of core convictions.
While Mitt Romney was moving on to the general election, Rick Santorum’s campaign announced that he would campaign in Pennsylvania ahead of the April 24 primary. “We have now reached the point where it's halftime," Santorum said. "Half the delegates in this process have been selected, and who's ready to charge out of the locker room in Pennsylvania for a strong second half?" He’s not going anywhere, was the message. That’s certainly been true in a growing string of primaries where Santorum hasn’t been able to break out of his box. Since his revival in the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri contests on Feb. 7, Santorum has not been able to win support beyond the most conservative wing of the GOP. As Ron Brownstein noted recently, Santorum’s support has been confined to a narrow band of evangelical voters who identify themselves as conservatives.