If this was match play golf, Rick Santorum would be seven shots down with six holes to play.
He has indeed played the last three holes wonderfully well, winning in Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, but Romney’s sweeps in the far flung islands of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, his wins in Hawaii and American Samoa, plus the former Massachusetts governor’s relatively strong showing in the southern brace of states means that over the past week the delegate math didn’t change and neither did the inevitable result of the GOP nominating contest. Indeed, when all the sums are added, Romney won more delegates in the days since Super Tuesday than did Santorum.
This doesn’t diminish Santorum’s accomplishment, but it does define its importance in the overall race. Mitt Romney was going to be the GOP nominee since his triumph in Florida. He is still going to be the GOP nominee.
Santorum told me on Monday that he will play out the match, and that is certainly not only his right — it is also an earned position. He has fought from nowhere to Avis status, and in doing that he has again confirmed that the GOP has a deeply committed and absolutely crucial segment that takes seriously the “social issues” as well as the threat posed by Iran and which also honors Santorum’s long-standing commitment to the party’s core values.
There is also a benefit, diminishing but still real, in pushing Team Romney to stay focused on improving his messaging and his organization, in continuing to press him to over-communicate with the party’s activists in the effort to assure that they will be part of the winning effort in the fall.
Now both Romney and Santorum have to consider each other as they move toward the primary endgame. Each has showed signs of impatience with the other, a reflection of the inevitable fraying of good will that comes from long days and endless rounds of interviews and rallies.
Both are strong conservatives. Both have worked together in the past and will work together in the future. Romney has to see and treat Santorum as a key ally in the upcoming effort to unseat a sitting president. Santorum must act not just as a fierce competitor but also as part of a much larger team that has to defeat the president in the fall. Both men must see Newt for the idea machine and instant energy drink that he is.
President Obama can be beaten. The next few weeks can be part of a very deliberate and useful turning of attention to his woeful tenure and the awful prospect of another four years under his ruinous fecklessness. No towels have to be thrown in, but each candidate has to consider the party as a whole and not just his own standing within it.