The road ahead for Romney

Mitt Romney’s big win in Florida kicked off what is likely to be a very good month for him in February.  Florida was a winner-take-all state, although the delegate prize was cut in half to 50 because it broke party rules to hold the primary early.  Newt Gingrich spent a ton of money and effort to come away with a painfully distant second-place finish, worth exactly zero delegates.  This will weaken his efforts in the February states, which Rick Santorum and Ron Paul abandoned Florida to reinforce.

Next up is Nevada, where Romney did well in 2008.  The state has a sizable Mormon population, and it’s holding a caucus, where Romney-style organization is a plus.  

Also, Nevada is a very good state for Ron Paul, who finished in second place last time.  It has heavy libertarian leanings, and the Paul campaign is making a strong effort there.  Good for Paul is bad for Gingrich, which means good for Romney.  Even if Paul actually managed to beat Romney in Nevada, Romney is still looking good in the long run, provided Gingrich is prevented from building any momentum.

After Nevada, the Maine caucuses conclude February 11.  This is another one of those “non-binding” affairs, like Iowa, and it runs for a full week, which dampens national excitement about the race.  Romney and Paul’s organizational advantages will be key here.  In fact, Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster told Maine Today that “Romney and Paul are running hard in Maine, but he doesn’t see evidence of the campaigns of Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.”  Gingrich and Santorum have all but conceded the state.

Maine’s famously “moderate” Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have made no endorsements yet.  They’re not very likely to endorse Ron Paul.

On February 7, we’ll have caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, plus a very weird primary in Missouri, which won’t actually award any delegates until a caucus held in March.  Romney won Colorado handily in 2008, although the last big polls taken in December showed Gingrich well ahead.  Fresh polls are likely to reveal a different race. 

Minnesota, on the other hand, was breaking heavily for Gingrich in much more recent polls, and might be the bright spot on the February calendar for him.  However, there are rumors that Minnesota congresswoman and former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is about to endorse Romney.  The Boston Globe reports that Romney made an unexpectedly hasty trip to Minnesota right after the Florida primary, and notes Bachmann could use his help with retiring her hefty campaign debt.

Colorado and Minnesota are also both looking good for Paul, while Rick Santorum has also been active in Colorado, and is gearing up for what could be his final stand in Missouri.  He’s looking for an impressive showing in the dry run of the essentially meaningless February primary, to set him up for the March caucuses.  Newt Gingrich didn’t qualify for the primary, so it’s Santorum’s big chance to grab the stage and make his pitch as the superior alternative to Romney.  There are plenty of social conservatives in Missouri ready to receive that pitch.

That brings us to Arizona and Michigan at the end of February.  Arizona is a winner-take-all primary with 29 delegates at stake, in a state where high-profile Senator John McCain has already endorsed Romney, and is actively campaigning for him.  Romney currently enjoys a wide lead in Arizona, while some January polls showed Gingrich is actually in third place, behind Santorum.

Romney is huge in Michigan, which has 30 delegates, awarded proportionally.  The odds of other candidates chipping away at Romney’s delegate total were reduced when Santorum and Paul virtually conceded the state, putting their chips on other bets.  That leaves it pretty much a Romney versus Gingrich contest, in a state where Romney actually defeated McCain in 2008, and the Gingrich campaign is already trying to manage expectations of a significant loss.

The outlook for Gingrich improves substantially in March, when more friendly southern states, including his native Georgia, will have a chance to weigh in.  Even there, he’s facing a guaranteed loss in his current state of residence, Virginia, where he failed to qualify for the ballot, as did Santorum. 

The trick for Gingrich will be surviving February, with a sense of momentum to animate voters in the March states.  This might be tricky if February is mostly a string of losses for him, particularly if Santorum’s star begins to rise.  There are polls that show Santorum runs better against Romney than Gingrich does.

There’s one other wild card, and Romney slapped it down on the table during a CNN interview Wednesday morning, during a disastrous interview in which he said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”  There’s a bit more context to his remarks, but you won’t be hearing any of it during the next round of attack ads, and the media is already buzzing that it might have been a fatal mistake. 

Suffice it to say that this late-breaking controversy will short-circuit a bit of the post-Florida excitement for Romney, and make some GOP primary voters nervous about his long-term prospects.  Many of those voters weren’t sold on the 2012 Romney convertible yet, and they have just been given reason to think the warranty might run out before November.  It might be enough to darken what should have been an excellent month for the Romney campaign.