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First Thoughts: The race goes on

Dave Kaup / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks as he visits a Republican presidential caucus at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. March 13, 2012.

The race goes on after Santorum wins in Alabama and Mississippi… The storyline remains pretty much the same: math (which is benefiting Romney) vs. perception (which is hurting him)… Romney’s perception problem: He’s struggling against the under-financed and under-organized Santorum… Boston, we have a message problem -- and a narrative problem, too… Next up: Illinois, where there’s pressure on both Romney and Santorum… Newt’s “Sixth Sense” problem… NBC’s current delegate count: Romney 419, Santorum 184, Gingrich 136, Paul 34… And the reason why you take a foreign leader to Ohio for an NCAA basketball game: You get local front-page like this.

*** The race goes on: So much for the “y’alls,” the “cheesy grits,” and Jeff Foxworthy. Last night, Mitt Romney had the opportunity to shut the door on his GOP rivals by winning at least one of the primaries in Alabama or Mississippi with just a mere 34% or even 33.5% of the vote. And after the polling places closed, the early exit polls and the Drudge buzz suggested he was going to accomplish that. Then the actual results came in: Rick Santorum finished first in both states, while Romney finished third. And the biggest consequence from last night is that the race now moves on to next week’s Illinois primary -- and it likely will stretch into May or June. Romney did receive a boost after winning Hawaii and America Samoa; in fact, he won a plurality of delegates last night (42 so far to Santorum’s 38 and Newt Gingrich’s 24). But the storyline after last night remains the same one after Super Tuesday: math (which is benefiting Romney) vs. perception (which is hurting him). 

After 27 states have weighed in on the process of selecting delegates nothing has changed. Rick Santorum swept Tuesday's Southern primaries, while Mitt Romney finished third and now the race moves on to next week's Illinois primary.

*** Can Romney fix his perception problem? And the perception that Romney is facing right now is that he can’t put away Rick Santorum -- despite all the money he has, the Restore Our Future Super PAC (which has spent $30 million in advertisements), his organizational advantage, and all the help he’s receiving from the GOP establishment. As Politico recently wrote, Romney is fighting the “loser” label; if he’s struggling against the under-financed and under-organized Santorum, the thinking goes, how will he fare going toe-to-toe with President Obama and a campaign organization that could be the most sophisticated in history? “Usually, once a politician takes on an aroma of hopelessness he keeps it. Bob Dole in 1996 limped to his nomination with few people expecting he would make a real race of it against Clinton, and he never did.” Yes, in 2008, John McCain lost several primary contests. And so did Obama. But the competition they faced was MUCH stronger than what Romney’s currently facing. As Romney limps toward the finish line, the question becomes: Can he heal, perception-wise, before the general? 

*** Boston, we have a message problem… : Yet Romney might be facing an even bigger problem: What is his campaign about? He says he wants to “restore America’s greatness,” but what does that mean? (Go back to the ‘50s? The ‘60s? The ‘80s? The Bush years?)  He says he’ll be able to turn around the economy, but what if it’s already slowly improving as the evidence currently suggests? And the campaign makes it clear that Romney is the inevitable nominee, but what happens if that inevitable nominee loses? Team Romney has had a message problem since this campaign began, and when you make your candidacy about electability and process, you’re going to pay a BIG price for losing to candidates. Why does Romney want to be president, an office he’s been running for the past six years? Has he really answered this basic question? 

*** … and a narrative problem: Let’s take this a step further. Even John McCain had a strong personal narrative at this stage in ’08. After all, he was a war hero and a “maverick” who was unafraid to buck his party. But ever since Gingrich blew up Romney’s Bain narrative -- remember the movie and the ads from two months ago (plus the tax returns and Swiss bank account business) -- Romney never replaced it with another narrative. And what does he replace it with? Being a successful governor? (That’s problematic because it will remind folks of his Massachusetts health-care law.) Being a man grounded in faith? (That’s problematic, too.) Who is Mitt Romney? What’s the story he wants to tell? 

*** Tough terrain for Romney: In fairness to Team Romney, Alabama and Mississippi weren't friendly terrain for the former Massachusetts governor. As we wrote earlier, those two states -- geographically and ideologically -- looked more like the states he had previously lost (SC, GA, TN, even OK) than the states he's won (NH, FL, NV, AZ, MI, OH, etc.). Indeed, a whopping 83% of primary voters in Mississippi and 80% of primary voters in Alabama described themselves as evangelical Christians. But Team Romney also has itself to blame for raising the stakes of last night's contests: They vastly outspent their rivals, they campaigned aggressively in the state, and they potentially stood to benefit from a split Santorum-Gingrich vote. Just like in South Carolina two months ago, they allowed expectations to exceed what Romney was capable of in a state with those kinds of demographics.  By the way, for those wondering why McCain was able to get some benefit of the doubt from Southerners while Romney has not: It’s more than just faith, it’s narrative and the military. McCain’s military credentials allowed him to overcome the ideological doubts that Southerners and evangelicals had about him. Romney doesn’t have something like that.

*** The pressure is on Santorum, too: Now we move on to Illinois, which holds its primary next Tuesday. And Illinois is going to be an important race. Once again, the pressure is on Romney. And once again, Team Romney has a HUGE advertising advantage, with the campaign and Super PAC spending nearly a combined $3 million so far (versus $16,000 for Gingrich and zero for Santorum). But the pressure is on Santorum, too. Can he defeat Romney in a state that isn’t dominated by conservatives and evangelicals? Can he pull off what he was unable to do in Michigan and Ohio? Romney hasn’t won an “away game,” but neither has Santorum. And the delegate match is NOT kind to Santorum in Illinois either. He didn’t file full delegate slates in the congressional districts; he’s 10 short. And Illinois is not an allocation system, it’s DIRECT ELECTION of the delegates INDIVIDUALLY in the congressional districts. A total nightmare, to be honest, for those tracking delegates. But it almost guarantees Romney will likely win a majority of the state’s delegates even if he loses the statewide vote, which has ZERO delegates connected to it. 

*** Newt’s “Sixth Sense” problem: As for Gingrich, he’s now facing a “The Sixth Sense” problem: Everyone knows his candidacy is dead, except for the candidate. Yes, he finished second to Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi, but it’s hard to imagine how he makes a claim that he’s the conservative alternative to Romney in this race. After all, we’ve now had 25-plus contests, and Gingrich has won just two of them (in South Carolina and Georgia). And he’s now lost three states that border Georgia (Florida, Alabama and Tennessee). So if he can’t even win in the Deep South, where else can he win? A big storyline over the next week will be pressure -- from the right and the media -- to get out of the race.

*** The current delegate count: According to NBC’s Decision Desk, the delegate count currently stands at Romney 419, Santorum 184, Gingrich 136, and Paul 34. By our math, this means that Romney needs to win just 48% of the remaining delegates to get to 1,114, while Santorum needs to get 63% of the remaining delegates.

*** On the trail: Santorum travels to Puerto Rico, campaigning in San Juan… Gingrich stumps in Illinois, making stops in Rosemont and Palatine… And Paul visits the University of Illinois for a town hall event.

*** Exhibit A why you take a foreign leader to Ohio: You get this above-the-fold, centerpiece front-page treatment from the Dayton Daily News with this headline: “The heartland is what it’s all about.” From the story: “President Barack Obama discussed energy policy with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and gave British Prime Minister David Cameron basketball tips Tuesday at an NCAA tournament game at UD Arena, during a brief election-year trip to a crucial swing state.” And the first quote of the story: “Sometimes when we have foreign visitors, they’re only visiting the coasts,” Obama said during a halftime interview. “They go to New York, they go to Washington, they go to Los Angeles, but the heartland is what it’s all about.” Today, Obama is back in DC, where he and Cameron hold a joint press conference at 12:05 pm ET and where the White House throws a state dinner for the British leader later tonight. 

Countdown to Illinois primary: 6 days (March 20)
Countdown to Louisiana primary: 10 days (March 24)
Countdown to Election Day: 237 days

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