Is it the beginning of the end of the battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum to be the Republican Party's U.S. presidential nominee?
Romney's campaign, primed after a solid win in Illinois, is telling folks to do the math. No way any other candidate can reach the magic 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. And no other candidate can beat Barack Obama in November.
Santorum's people counter that the race is closer than one might think, Fox News reported.
"We're looking at the rules, we're looking at how things are stacking up, and we're in much better shape in these caucuses and some of these apportioned states or winner take all states which in fact are not winner take all states," Santorum said on the stump before the Illinois primary that Romney won by 12 percentage points.
"We've got some new delegate math that we're going to be putting out that shows this race is a lot different than what the consensus is," he said.
As of Thursday, CNN's delegate count was Romney 562, Santorum 249, Newt Gingrich 137 and Ron Paul 71.
But for the former Massachusetts governor to be the inevitable nominee, which his campaign began touting after the Illinois results, two things must happen, Time magazine said.
One, he needs to get Republicans sitting on the sidelines to embrace his candidacy, open their wallets, and encourage Gingrich and Santorum to drop out. Two, Romney must convey through the airwaves, on the Internet and in the print that he's the only candidate who can win a majority of the delegates needed for the nomination and has a good shot of doing so well before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
In fact, The New York Times said if Romney keeps up his current pace of picking up delegates -- not necessarily winning primaries outright but collecting bunches of delegates nonetheless -- he could have the nomination sewn up before Utah runs the last primary of the cycle June 26.
And the droll matter of delegate allocation -- not the media-hyped primary or caucus results -- is what matters, said political commentator Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota.
"The media plays up a win in a primary or caucus, regardless of the delegate allocation," Schier said. "What matters in the end is the allocation of delegates, which gets remarkably limited coverage in the reporting of primaries and caucuses."
Proportional delegate allocations, the method used so far in most of the primaries and caucuses through Saturday, "fractures the state's delegates among candidates and limits its impact on the nomination contest," Schier said.
And just in case Romney doesn't button down the nomination before August, the GOP is prepping itself for the possibility that its presidential nomination could be decided, not anointed, during the convention. If this happens, it would be the first open convention since Ronald Reagan locked horns with incumbent Gerald Ford in 1980.
Even as he adds to his delegate total, Romney still isn't adding conservative voters to his camp and Santorum remains a viable alternative -- prompting activists and the campaigns to seriously consider that no one will hit 1,144. If that happens, the nomination would be decided by the more than 2,200 delegates attending the convention.
Aides to Romney poo-poo the idea that either Santorum or Gingrich have the organizational wherewithal to force the party into a convention fight. But even if they do, one aide said Romney would emerge victorious.
"They may be planning on a contested convention, but it's irrelevant because we're going to get to 1,144," Katie Biber Chen, Romney campaign chief counsel, told the Times.
Romney is monitoring Santorum's and Gingrich's delegate totes and will label them "spoilers" if reaching 1,144 becomes an impossibility, Chen said. At that point, Santorum and Gingrich would be running to stop Romney -- a strategy Gingrich already advocates -- and force a convention fight.
"Roughly translated, that means, 'We're planning on ensuring the party can't choose a nominee until September, with 60 days to take on an incumbent president …,'" Chen said.
Romney still has the advantages that made him a front-runner early on -- money, organization and an appeal in more moderate states that have a high number of delegates -- but still hasn't overcome the challenge of winning over conservatives and evangelicals who gravitate toward Santorum
"In terms of the delegate count, Romney is well positioned, but I don't think his opponents are going to go quietly," Romney supporter Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told the Times. "I think there's a hope among the other candidates that they can split this thing up enough so they can go into the convention and have it decided there."
Santorum and Gingrich maintain they have an advantage over Romney among the party delegates because, in the words of Santorum's new delegate strategist John P. Yob, "the people who show up for county, district and state conventions are much more conservative than your average primary voters."
Yob helped oversee the delegate process for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who said this year's contest is vicious.
"This is the nastiest I have ever seen," McCain said recently on CBS' "Sunday Morning, noting a casino mogul's contributing millions of dollars to Gingrich's campaign, and the rash of the negative ads "that drives up people's unfavorables."
McCain, who faced off against Romney in the 2008 primary cycle, said he thought his one-time rival would collect enough delegates to avoid a brokered convention.
"But in my view it's gone way too long and it's gotten way, way to personal and attacks on character and all of that have been very unfortunate," he said. "And again, who's benefited from it? President Obama."
McCain and others laid some of the blame for the prolonged primary season at the feet of super-PACs, officially known as "independent-expenditure-only committees," and their ability to raise huge sums of money on behalf of a candidate.
"Super-PACs have hyper-extended the nomination process by allowing a small number of financial 'angels' to bankroll candidates such as Santorum and Gingrich who would, in other years, have had to drop out of the contest due to a lack of funds," political commentator Schier said.
Observers note both Gingrich and Santorum can attract voters while running a campaign on the cheap, while Romney has money to burn but can't get all factions of the party to rally around him.
"He just doesn't connect. He doesn't draw energy from his crowds," one of Romney's donors told The Washington Post. "Both Newt and Rick are passionate in that sense, whether you agree with what's coming out of their mouths or not. They say it with passion and conviction. And you are who you are -- and that's just not in Mitt Romney's DNA."
But as much time and money candidates have spent so far, GOP voters still are staying away in droves in the party primaries and caucuses, likely for a number of reasons, Schier said.
"People are unhappy about the direction of the country and with politics as usual," Schier offered up as one reason. "This is reflected in the lagging fundraising for Obama's campaign and super-PAC, and in the low turnout in the GOP primaries."
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