Following Rick Santorum’s two impressive upset victories in Alabama and Mississippi, where he had trailed both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in polls, on Tuesday night, the never-ending circus that is the Republican primary lurches onward, no end in sight.
Despite again being vastly outspent by Mitt Romney and his super PAC, Santorum proved once again that there remains strong resistance within the rank-and-file of the Republican party to Romney’s candidacy. And had it not been for stubborn Newt Gingrich’s refusal to drop out and endorse him — he reaffirmed his commitment to staying in the race in his rambling concession speech — Santorum would probably have scored a pair of commanding victories rather than squeaking them out with roughly one third of the vote.
Still, because of Romney’s victories in American Samoa and Hawaii, Santorum was unable to close the gap in the delegate count, an increasingly important metric because Santorum’s path to the nomination will likely come from depriving Romney of the 1,144 delegates needed to obtain a majority, and then making his case at the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Florida. In fact according to the New York Times delegate count Romney actually increased his delegate lead, winning 43 delegates to Santorum’s 36, with Newt Gingrich siphoning off 24.
This is where Gingrich’s refusal to drop out really hurts Santorum. As long as he remains in the race, he will continue to help Romney by dividing the anti-Romney vote. Had he dropped out earlier, Santorum would have been the favorite to win both Michigan and Ohio, both of which he ended up barely losing to Romney, despite Gingrich’s presence. Unfortunately for those of us who would like to see President Obama face off against Senator Santorum next fall, Gingrich will continue to siphon conservative voters from Santorum. Ironically of course, this is the last thing Gingrich wants, as his distaste for Romney is quite apparent, but Gingrich no longer has anything to lose, and he seems determined to milk the free publicity for all its worth.
From here, the campaign move to Puerto Rico on March 18, and the next toss-up a la Ohio and Michigan, Illinois, on March 20. But as long as Gingrich remains in the race Romney will continue to accumulate delegates at his current pace, which will allow him to lock up the nomination by May or June.