The big picture view is simple. Much like McCain in ’08, Romney will continue to struggle to consolidate his position, even after it has become obvious that he is the only candidate with the national organization to grind out the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination and face President Obama in the fall. The resistance to Romney within the GOP base is stronger than he imagined; even big victories in some states can’t erase his weakness elsewhere. But the message isn’t that Santorum would be a winner in the fall — he very likely wouldn’t be — or that Santorum can take the nomination from Romney, though anything’s possible in politics. Rather, it’s that Romney won’t be able to take his foot off the gas pedal for a long time. Romney and his super PAC spent little in the February 7 states — a major miscalculation. Going forward, Romney will have to spend big money and aim negative ads at any opponent who is popping up in the polls. Santorum is vulnerable to attacks from a variety of directions, so Gingrich will get a break while Santorum is Romney’s target. In the interim and throughout a tough primary season, Romney is going to have to find new ways to strengthen his candidacy beyond simply unloading negative ads. A good campaign to study would be Bill Clinton’s in 1992. Clinton was also very weak at this juncture but he worked hard to fortify his position over the course of a long primary season. The parallels aren’t precise but there are some lessons nonetheless. If Romney can’t learn them, he’s going to have a long, difficult spring full of intermittent defeats and rampant speculation that the convention will have to turn away from all four of the current candidates to produce a fall winner.
— Larry J. Sabato is director of the Center for Politics and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.