I will be on Emily Rooney's WGBH radio show today at noon, doing a political week-in-review segment with the estimable Jeff Jacoby. The main topic will be Mitt Romney and the GOP nomination battle, so here's my quick take before you tune in to hear me talk about it on air.
Romney, of course, followed up his big Florida victory by winning an impressive (albeit expected) romp in Saturday's Nevada caucuses. There are contests tomorrow, in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Then a break until Arizona and Michigan at the end of the month, followed by (a relatively small) Super Tuesday on March 6.
There is very little doubt, in my opinion, that Romney will get the nomination. But I think he still needs to keep fighting for it, and that's potentially a problem for him.
Think of it as a baseball game, with your star pitcher on the mound, and a solid five or six run lead in the fourth inning. You're going to win. But you might not win if you pull the pitcher this early. So, even if you would prefer to rest his arm, you have to leave him in for a while.
(A better analogy would be a star quarterback in a late-season game where a win gets you home-field advantage in the playoffs -- but nobody around here wants a football analogy today.)
Winning individual states, at this point, is like hurling a shutout inning -- it doesn't really matter, except that if you did give up a run or two you might need to leave the starter in a little longer than if you maintain that bigger lead.
See, if Romney doesn't pitch shutout innings, that means someone scored -- and will feel it's worth it to keep their own A team on the field.
For example, Rick Santorum is polling well in Missouri (where Gingrich is not on the ballot) and Minnesota. If he wins one or both, he can make the case that he's poised to win midwestern and rust-belt states, including Ohio on Super Tuesday March 6. That could get him more funding, and media attention, which will help him compete in Ohio and beyond.
Likewise, if Gingrich wins his home state of Georgia, and perhaps Tennessee on Super Tuesday, he can make the case that he's poised to win other upcoming Southern states, ultimately including Texas on April 3. If Ron Paul can win a caucus state or two that he's targetting, he can also keep building his campaign.
None of them appear to have much chance of actually accumulating large masses of delegates this way -- but they could collectively prevent Romney from rolling up a dominant delegate stash himself. And that could keep mean even more attention and money for the challengers deep into the contest. And that, in turn, means that Romney (and his Super PAC) will have to use more and more of their resources, and spend more and more time using rhetoric that is doing him no good for the general election.
So, Romney has to stay on the mound, and try hard to keep throwing shutout innings. That way, the other candidates -- whether they stay in the race or not -- get their A team (in attention and funding) pulled by the media and donors. At that point, it becomes safe to pull Romney and coast to the nomination.
So, even though Nevada doesn't really mean anything, and tomorrow's contests don't really mean anything, they're actually quite important to Romney. Or, so I would argue.