For many conservatives who have supported "anybody but Romney or Paul" for the last several months, their most recent champion's fall in Michigan will have them wondering if Republicans are better off voting for Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum put up a valiant fight that nearly led to the major upset, but in the end Romney's money and the perception that he's more electable prevailed.
The stakes were symbolic more than mathematical. With the delegates split based mostly upon congressional districts, a victory would have only garnered Santorum a few more delegates but the embarrassing message that would have been sent to undecided voters had Romney failed to win his home state would have been devastating.
With Washington and Super Tuesday around the corner, the question that will be posed to voters is whether or not Romney's victory is inevitable. If so, they'll want to vote for him to hasten his ascension and end the GOP-to-GOP attacks as quickly as possible. If voters feel that Santorum (or Gingrich or Paul) still have a chance, they'll need to push harder and pull a couple of upsets out of their hats on Super Tuesday.
A strong showing next week will all but clinch the nomination for Romney.
Unlike previous elections, this one has conservatives in a form of political limbo. On one side, they are pulling for either Santorum or Gingrich to be the voice of conservative values. On the other side, they don't want to prolong the primary season to the point that it hurts the party's chances of defeating President Obama in November.
Romney's Play to be Seen as a Conservative
Since Florida where the attacks on Romney have focused on his moderate tendencies, the former Massachusetts governor has tried to reach out to the far right and paint himself as the true fiscal conservative. It has been effective only in that it has put Gingrich and Santorum on the defensive. Right or wrong, he's been able to suspend disbelief of being a moderate well enough to squeak out in Michigan.
He will continue to do so going into Super Tuesday as it is where he is most vulnerable. Appealing to the evangelical voters will not be effective as long as Santorum and Gingrich remain in the race. In Michigan, exit polls indicated that Santorum received 50% of the votes from people identifying themselves as evangelical while Romney was able to pull 35%. In states other than the deep south, it will be enough.
Fiscal conservatism is his best play now. If he can paint Santorum as saying one thing, doing another based upon his voting record as he did in Michigan, he will likely pull the contested states to his side for Super Tuesday.
Santorum Will Stick to his Guns
Some analysts will point to Santorum's evocation of his faith as one of the reasons for his defeats in Michigan and Arizona (where he was still considered a contender just two weeks ago). This will not make Santorum falter. If anything, it may force him to play the faith card even more feverishly.
It could work. The best thing going for Obama is an improving economy. The Dow is up. Unemployment is on the decline. The rising price of gas is an issue that could haunt him, but it's too early for Santorum to use it as an issue (though Gingrich is). The second best move that Santorum could make is to point out that he's the only true Christian who can go up against Obama's "war on Christianity" as many pundits are calling it.
The implications would be that Romney is not a true Christian but rather a Mormon. It's a delicate matter that nobody has truly attacked.
The best thing he could do is to attack Obamacare and push the idea that Romneycare led the way to it. Polls show that healthcare, the victory that was supposed to lead Obama to a second term, is an issue that's working against the President. Whether Romneycare is anything like Obamacare would be a moot point if Santorum attacks it in the right way.
The reason that he'll stick to his Christian guns rather than go after Romneycare is money. He can get free airtime by speaking to and about Christians as invoking it will make headlines that write themselves. Attacking Romneycare would cost a lot of money as television ads and social media are the only venues available to him on that front. It's money that he simply doesn't have available right now.
Gingrich's Gas Tank
Energy independence has been Gingrich's talking point ever since the prices of gas started rising. He's put a lot of effort and cash into promoting drilling and Canadian oil as the key to America's future.
At this point, he's committed to it. A loss in Georgia or poor showings in all of the other states on Super Tuesday will end his campaign. He has failed to get traction on other fronts, but Santorum's Michigan loss kept his hopes alive. Now, he'll be spending the next week trying to convince voters that he still has a chance.
This is the wrong approach. His campaign is at a point of desperation and his only chance is to be the bold Newt Gingrich that won him South Carolina. To do this, he has to play from a position of authority again, a position of strength in his ideas and his debating skills that took him from the brink to the top of the board for a short time before Florida.
Paul and the Virginia Factor
Since the beginning, Ron Paul has been the candidate that only his supporters took seriously. He is the only one left who hasn't won a state and despite finishing higher than Gingrich in several primaries, he's still considered the least likely to win the nomination.
An unlikely win in Virginia still wouldn't be enough to get him into the top 3, but it would likely fuel his potential run as an independent.
It would also give Santorum and/or Gingrich enough ammunition to keep going even if Romney does well on Super Tuesday. At that point, one will have to bow out and they will be urged to do so by conservatives on both sides. Competing against each other gives Romney a major advantage. If one casts support to the other, the race will continue all the way to the convention.
Is Romney Worth the Reluctant Vote?
For the party's sake, many will be forced as they were in 2008 to vote for the moderate that the Republican Establishment has anointed. An extended primary season will drain resources of the eventual candidate and give ammunition to Democrats with attack points and a weakened nominee. Are conservatives ready to give up on their first choice and start supporting Romney for the sake of the general election? Is it still too early? Do any of the other candidates still have a chance?
Welcome to conservative political limbo.