It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t easy, but Mitt Romney has essentially locked up the GOP nomination.
On Super Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor won the most states (six out of 10), the most votes (nearly 1.4 million vs. 819,000 for his closest rival, Rick Santorum) and the most delegates (more than 210 Super Tuesday delegates vs. less than 180 for his three rivals).
Romney now leads in total delegates (404 vs. 165 for Santorum, 106 for Gingrich, and 66 for Paul). He is the only GOP candidate to have won states in every region of the country. He has the most money, the best organization and the only realistic path to the nomination.
It’s true that Romney has faced an unusually weak field of contenders and has struggled against them. He won Ohio, a bellwether state, by only 12,000 votes (out of almost 1.2 million cast) against Santorum, an underfunded candidate who was off-message for much of the last couple of weeks.
Romney still has problems connecting with lower income, evangelical and younger voters. His favorability ratings among independents are quite low. And he seems to be better at vanquishing opponents than inspiring voters. Romney is, at this juncture at least, a relatively weak front-runner. Of course, so was Bill Clinton at a similar juncture in 1992.
But Romney has proven to be a tough-minded candidate. He is an effective, and at times outstanding, debater. He’s resilient, fairly disciplined and knowledgeable on policy. In the last few weeks in particular, he has begun to move away from an over reliance on his biography to a sharper economic message.
At this point, he’s not as strong as his supporters had hoped nor as weak as his critics think. He has at least an even chance of being the next president of the United States.
Romney faces, after all, an incumbent who is in the weakest position of any since Jimmy Carter in 1979. While President Barack Obama’s standing is better than it was last fall, his Gallup approval rating remains dangerously low (43% in the most recent one). The president is weaker in swing states than the rest of the country. Republican voters are more enthusiastic than Democratic ones. The economy, while having improved in recent months, remains weak, and the recovery quite fragile. There is widespread unease among voters.
A majority of Americans aren’t inclined to re-elect Obama, who has disappointed them on almost every front. The question is whether Romney will provide them enough assurance, enough reasons, to place their confidence in him. That is what the next eight months will determine.
Romney faces several tasks, including closing out the race while sustaining minimal damage from his rivals, uniting the party eventually and raising enough money to compete with the president on a relatively even playing field.
The keys to a Romney victory in the fall will be keeping focus on Obama’s inept record and reminding voters of the gaping gap between what Obama said as a candidate and how he has governed. In light of the last three years, Obama’s rhetoric in 2008—his promise to repair the country, heal the earth and reverse the rise of the oceans—looks childish and absurd.
Romney needs to convince people that if we stay on the path Obama has put us on, we face fiscal wreckage (think Greece) and even more economic hardship. Romney has to present a compelling and comprehensive agenda, particularly on the economic side. And he has to provide a narrative—an evocative theme—that tells voters what a Romney presidency can achieve. He needs to find a way to touch voters’ hearts and not simply their minds—something that doesn’t come easily to him.
The path to the presidency is always long and arduous. Romney has completed the rough-and-tumble first stage and at a higher cost than he might have hoped for. Yet out of a field of nine GOP contenders and a half-dozen who could have made a plausible run for the presidency (Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio), it is Romney who will eventually scale the mountain.
He is not a naturally gifted campaigner, but he has shown he can win when he has to do so. And in the fall, he’ll be debating Obama one-on-one, probably with the presidency within his grasp.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.