The big news last week wasn't that Mitt Romney will probably be the nominee for the Republican Party; it was that the Republican Party is now finally coming to terms with the fact that Romney is the best it can do.
You could tell the establishment was starting to warm up to Romney when former President George H.W. Bush gave his blessing, along with a host of other party heavyweights. Even Jim DeMint, the sage of the Tea Party wing of the GOP, said, without formally endorsing him, that "I'm not only comfortable with Romney, I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee.”
Romney's sweep last week of primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia deepened the impression that he's the man. Even rival Newt Gingrich said, while reassuring us that his candidacy continues, that Romney is "the most likely Republican nominee."
Rick Santorum has the most to gain from staying in the race -- and to lose. The longer he runs, the more he can lay the foundation for 2016. But the longer he stays in, the more he keeps the party from focusing on Obama in the general election, and that hurts his chances in 2016.
So it's a balancing act, and perhaps that's why he recently meet with arch social conservatives like Gary Bauer, head of the pro-life group American Values who is a former candidate for president in 2000 -- to get some advice on what to do next. Bauer backed Romney in 2008, but only because he disliked John McCain more. This year, he's got a traditionalist Roman Catholic who appears to take talking points straight from the Vatican. Social conservative love love love that; too bad Catholics don't.
The results of that meeting are unknown, but it looks like the strategy, as it were, hinges on Santorum's performance in Pennsylvania, his home state. It's been said that Santorum is far too conservative to win a general election. Sure, he can win Midwest and Southern states, but not in America's so-called swing states, in which voters are evenly split along party lines. These include Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. A win in Pennsylvania would go a long way to proving that Santorum is just the conservative Americans want.
But some are advising him to avoid risking a loss in Pennsylvania. Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 by a wide margin of defeat. Even if he loses the primary by a hair, it could be seen as more reason to dislike his chances in 2016. Better to step away, some say, and rekindle this year's brief momentum four years from now.
McCain was the runner-up in 2000. Romney in 2008. So it's not crazy to think Santorum has a shot in 2016. You'll notice I didn't say 2020. Critics on the left and right are saying that Romney doesn't have a shot against Obama and that the Republicans should just pack it up now. The most prominent figure to give voice to this is TV host Joe Scarborough of MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Scarborough, a "renegade Republican," said last week:
That's not what you want to hear if you're Mitt Romney. But perhaps he doesn't care. According to a report in the Associated Press, Romney's likely strategy in the general election is going to be appearing like a moderate who can fix the economy while attacking Obama with ads. It worked for him in the gubernatorial race in Massachusetts, and he hopes it works this year.
Perhaps it will. What's telling is Romney doesn't appear to believe winning requires that voters like him. Just appear to be a competent candidate, attack Obama with millions in ads, and that should be enough. It seems jaw-dropping, that kind of thinking, and the kind of thing you'd expect from a former Wall Street executive.