Romney struggles in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado. And the CPAC minefield is next.

Monday I suggested an analogy in which Mitt Romney is like a starting pitcher; I guess we learned yesterday (when Romney lost contests in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado) that he really doesn't have his best stuff in this outing. I still feel pretty certain that he'll win the nomination -- he's facing a pretty weak-hitting lineup -- but he definitely needs to keep fighting for a while.

And that, of course, is a serious problem, for him and for the GOP nationally. These Republican contests have gone around state-by-state showcasing the worst of Mitt, like a neighborhood watch group posting photos to warn residents of the sex offender who just moved in.

If I may toss out yet another metaphor... the Republican nominating process has taken on some of the feel of one of those early-round NCAA basketball tournament games, when the crowd finds itself, for no rational reason, rooting for the obscure, underdog school putting up a fight against the top-seeded powerhouse team.

One effect of this is that Santorum's likely to get a lot of interest now. It also means that in relatively low-profile contests, like yesterday's, people likely to vote for Romney aren't particularly paying attention, while people likely to vote against him -- or, like those fans at the hoops game, just eager to see the underdog make him work for the win -- are the more geared-up rooting section.

We now head into the annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), which is another potential minefield for Romney. For one thing, it's likely that Sarah Palin -- who is the keynote speaker this year -- will finally endorse Newt Gingrich, and could use her prime-time, FOX-carried speech to hammer Mitt Romney. And, while she may not be someone many Republicans would vote for, Palin is still one of the right's most effective zing-masters.

Gingrich is typically given absolute rock-star treatment at CPAC, and I suspect he will again. I suspect Santorum will get huge attention coming off yesterday's win, and could get wide coverage of his speech in conservative circles. And, for what it's worth, Ron Paul packs the CPAC with his people and will, as usual, become a divisive focal point.

Meanwhile, the media and wider audience is going to pay a fair amount of attention to CPAC, and notice that it is, um, a little outside the mainstream of American experience. This is a crowd that believes America is already halfway into Stalinism, under seige by a trained army of homosexual Black Panther ACORN abortionist who have declared war on all practice of religion other than radical violent jihadist Islam. I'm not making a judgment here -- maybe they're right, what do I know -- but I'm just saying it's not your average everyday dinner-table conversation.

And, Romney is scheduled to speak in the midst of this. He has a lot of support among the old-time CPAC crowd, but I suspect the audience will be largely unenthusiastic. Does he shower them with red meat, and risk further alienating the general-election swing voters, or try to largely rise above it all and appear more Presidential, even if that risks more short-term trouble with conservative voters in primaries?

It was interesting to me that in his speech last night, Romney did not throw the red meat around. He didn't even take on the day's big same-sex marriage ruling, or Obama's recent decision about Catholic hospitals. 

That may be because he can't find a good way to attack Rick Santorum from the right -- instead, he indicated in the speech that he will attack Santo as a corrupted Washington insider. Romney may also be calculating that the two upcoming contests, in Arizona and Michigan, are significantly less dominated by evangelical conservatives.

Or, maybe he's decided to just stop the obviously phony, inauthentic, play-acting and finally get back to what he and his campaign swore they learned from the '08 race -- that he needs to stay away from the social-conservative and talk-show nonsense, and stay focussed on his core strengths of leadership and economic know-how. We've seen little evidence so far that they are actually following their own plan.

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