There was a little development in the GOP nomination process yesterday, which may end up meaning nothing but I think has the potential to spell trouble for Mitt Romney.
Texas, which is experiencing some redistricting-related difficulties, looks like it won't actually be ready to hold its primary in early April -- already a postponement from early March. As of yesterday they're saying May at the earliest, and probably later.
This probably means that Texas becomes essentially irrelevant; the competition almost always shakes out before that point. Even if the nominee hasn't technically reached the required number of delegates yet, it's usually a foregone conclusion.
But here's the thing: California, as usual, votes late as well -- a June 5 primary. And in the GOP nomination process, those two states award by far the most delegates. California has 172, Texas has 155, and the next highest are New York with 95 and Georgia with 76. (Florida would have had 100, but was penalized half by going early.)
California and Texas, together, account for nearly 15% of all delegates to the Republican National Convention. If Texas votes in June, May would end with close to a quarter of all delegates still up for grabs.
That probably doesn't matter, as long as Romney wins Michigan and Arizona at the end of this month, and then follows with a good Super Tuesday a week later.
But let's assume that Santorum does reasonably well in those contests. A couple of things are different now than they would be with an earlier Texas primary.
For one, Santorum has a lot more time to ramp up a national campaign. It's no huge secret that the Romney team tried to get the RNC to adopt a front-loaded schedule, on the assumption that he would have a huge advantage in a quickly nationalized campaign. That didn't happen; but there is still, beginning with those two Feb. 28 contests, a pretty rapid-fire succession of primaries straight through to April 3 -- with close to half of all delegates chosen in that 5-week span. Removing Texas from that roster makes things a whole lot easier for Santorum.
In addition, the change makes it far more likely that Newt Gingrich will drop out of the race soon after Super Tuesday.
Gingrich, with the endorsement and assistance of Governor Rick Perry, has banked his viability on winning Texas on April 3. That, along with a win on his home turf of (delegate-rich, as noted above) Georgia, and other victories along the way, were supposed to get him even with Romney. Unless Gingrich has a real good Super Tuesday on March 6, it's going to be a lot tougher to convince backers to keep him afloat for three more months until Texas rather than one.
If Gingrich does drop out in early March, that would be a huge boost to Santorum -- who would be immediately competitive in the Southern states (where he has done poorly, but where resistance to Romney is high), and would also no longer be splitting anti-Romney votes elsewhere.
All of this may not ultimately prove fatal to Romney's path to the nomination, but it could keep Santorum viable for a very long time -- especially with such a huge number of delegates remaining so late in the game, with Texas moved back. That would mean Romney spending enormous resources, and continuing to run a conservative-friendly primary campaign, right through the Spring.
Bear in mind, it's also very possible that Santorum could be effectively finished three weeks from today. It's not at all difficult to imagine Romney winning Arizona and Michigan on the 28th, followed on Super Tuesday with wins in Ohio, Massachusetts, Virginia (where Santorum and Gingrich failed to get on the ballot), and Vermont, while Gingrich wins Georgia, and either Romney or Gingrich take Tennessee and Oklahoma.
If that's the case, March 7 will find Santorum well into the process without having won a single real primary -- just a handful of caucuses and the meaningless Missouri straw poll -- and buried far behind in the delegate count. It's hard to see good things for him at that point.