Monday night, I sat looking at the GOP primary schedule and, considering Mitt Romney's enormous fundraising advantage, was filled with a sense of foreboding. After Newt Gingrich's meltdown in Nevada, the prospects for the conservative "Anybody But Romney" opposition looked grim indeed.
Rick Santorum's 3-for-3 hat-trick Tuesday night, however, revives the glimmer of a possibility that Romney can still be beat. But it will nevertheless be a difficult challenge and, in the short term, will require at least tacit cooperation between the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns.
After we get the results of the Maine caucuses on Saturday -- a near-certain win for Romney -- Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries on Feb. 28. With Romney's vastly superior financial resources, he would likely win both states unless Santorum and Gingrich strike an unofficial deal: Let Gingrich concentrate his campaign on Arizona (a Sun Belt state that matches Gingrich's political strengths) while Santorum focuses on the industrial "Rust Belt" state of Michigan. Both of the conservative "not Mitts" would face long odds against Romney in those states, but the odds will be slightly shorter than they would be if both of them were shuttling back and forth between the two states. They could economize in terms of campaign staff, travel expenses and advertising and, if they get a lucky break somewhere along the way, might conceivably score twin upsets, so that Romney loses both Arizona and Michigan.
The Washington State caucus intervenes March 3, the Saturday before "Super Tuesday" March 6, when Santorum and Gingrich could again improve their odds against Romney by a tacit and unofficial division of states. Ohio is another industrial "Rust Belt" state that matches Santorum's strengths, while Gingrich can count Georgia as his home turf. Of the other Super Tuesday states, Vermont and Massachusetts are practically "gimme" votes for Romney, who will almost surely also defeat Ron Paul in Virginia, where neither Santorum nor Gingrich qualified for the primary ballot. That leaves Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee as possibilities for either Santorum or Gingrich. Would Santorum be willing to cede Tennessee and perhaps also Oklahoma to Gingrich in exchange for a clear shot at Romney in the other states?
Some such arrangement would seem to offer the best hope of stopping Romney, if the conservative rivals Gingrich and Santorum are really serious about stopping Romney at all costs. The two conservatives would have to be willing to postpone until after Super Tuesday a showdown between themselves, knowing that neither of them has a good chance at the nomination unless -- by a modicum of tactical cooperation in the near term -- they can deliver enough defeats to Romney to stop him from building an insuperable early lead in the delegate count.
This kind of cooperation between two candidates in the GOP nomination contest would be unprecedented, but would simply replicate how the campaign has played out accidentally so far: Santorum upset Romney in Iowa and then, after Romney won New Hampshire, Gingrich won South Carolina, depriving Romney of a snowballing "inevitability" momentum. After two more Romney wins in Florida and Nevada, which threatened another "inevitability" snowball, Santorum came back to score big Tuesday in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. What the Santorum-Gingrich tag-team has so far achieved against Romney in sequential contests, they must now attempt to repeat in simultaneous contests.
Certainly, after Santorum's impressive victories Tuesday, Gingrich will look silly if he doesn't cease his oft-repeated arguments that Santorum should drop out and endorse him. And while Santorum now asserts that he is the only conservative choice in the Republican campaign, he doesn't yet have the financial or organizational resources to match Romney's powerful machine. The only way either Gingrich or Santorum can realistically keep up the fight against Romney with any hope to prevent him from getting the nomination is to "spread the field," forcing the Romney campaign to defend against different opponents in different states, at least during the next four weeks.
One final thought: Both Gingrich and Santorum are hostile to Ron Paul's anti-war libertarian ideology. Yet if they are really serious about stopping Romney, Gingrich and Santorum should tell their supporters in Virginia: "A vote for Ron Paul is a vote for me!"