Last night emphasized the two major dynamics in the Republican presidential race. The most obvious, and most discussed, is Mitt Romney’s inability to land the knockout blow. Every time he has a chance to cement his status as the frontrunner and consign his opponents to irrelevance, he comes up short. Crucial Republican voting blocs still think Romney is too liberal.
But there is a second dynamic at work here: Romney’s opponents, especially Rick Santorum, are only able to do well enough to keep their campaigns alive and the primaries a competitive process. But they fail to do well enough to overtake Romney, and are increasingly hinting that their strategy is really to deny Romney enough delegates to win on the first ballot and force a contested convention.
Santorum didn’t need narrow victories in proportional states, with Romney taking some delegates too. At this point, he needs blowout wins in proportional states and some upsets in winner-take-all states to put a real dent in Romney’s delegate lead. Instead, when you factor in Hawaii and the American Samoa, Romney actually came away with more delegates than Santorum last night. Some of this is due to Newt Gingrich’s insistence on remaining in the race — neither contest in the Deep South would have been as close without Newt on the ballot — but this also been true in Rust Belt states where Gingrich was barely a factor.
The end result is the worst of all possible worlds. Romney continues to limp toward the nomination against opponents whose best hope is him coming up a little short on the first ballot, but with deepening perception problems that will dog him in the general election. Santorum and Gingrich continue to remind conservatives of why they don’t want Romney to be the nominee, while failing to do well enough to prevent that outcome.