Phoenix, Ariz. — Since John McCain’s win in Florida, the conventional wisdom has been that he has nearly locked up the Republican presidential nomination. But now, just hours before Super Tuesday voting begins, a new factor has entered the equation: California. Polls, both public and those taken privately by the Romney campaign, show Mitt Romney with unexpected strength in the nation’s biggest state, sending both Romney and McCain rushing to make unscheduled stops there on Monday night and Tuesday. If Romney could win California, people in both campaigns say, the race could go on for several more weeks. And if that happens, conservatives who are trying to organize to stop McCain would have more time to work. At this late moment, California means everything.
A Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll, finished Sunday, shows Romney leading McCain in California, 40 percent to 32 percent. A Rasmussen poll, finished Saturday, shows the two candidates tied at 38 percent. Other polls, taken before February first, showed McCain in the lead, sometimes by a substantial margin.
“Our internals show it about the same as the public polls,” one Romney adviser tells me. “There clearly has been a movement.” A McCain insider says, “We don’t have our own polling, but in the polling we’ve heard about, we started to see a trend toward Romney on Saturday.”
On the basis of the polls, Romney scheduled a last-minute visit to California, appearing tonight in Long Beach. McCain will head there Tuesday for Election Day campaigning before heading home to Phoenix to watch the election results. It’s a particularly important move to Romney, who after an airport rally in Long Beach will fly back to the east coast, ending on election night in Boston. “Obviously a trip out there is difficult from a time standpoint,” says the Romney aide, “since he could go to six other places in the time it takes to go to California.”
Last-minute rushing aside, the question is: What does the movement in the polls mean? In the last few days, Romney has pumped millions of dollars into California. Immediately after losing in Florida, at the moment it appeared Romney might not write any more checks for expensive advertising, he changed his mind and authorized what aides described as a multi-million dollar ad buy in California. To McCain’s aides, the bump in the polls is a direct result of that decision.
“I think it’s because Romney has spent a lot of money there,” the McCain adviser tells me. “He’s had TV for several days, radio spots gutting McCain for not being a conservative. I think that may be the one place where he’s getting some traction on the ‘McCain’s not a conservative, I am’ thing.”
Romney aides disagree. “Everyone’s pumping money in, everywhere,” a second Romney adviser tells me. “What’s happening is like what happened in Maine. When it’s down to two men, and Republican voters look at the two men and see where they stand on the issues, with the economy becoming the most important thing, the decision gets easier and easier.”
But what, exactly, is the message? “The question in my mind is whether this is the beginning of the coalescing of the conservative movement against McCain, or whether it is something less than that,” the first Romney aide tells me. “Is he going forward on the basis of a conservative wave, although at the 11th hour and 59th minute?” If Romney believes there is such a conservative wave, he will certainly keep on.
And if Romney does keep on — yet another aide tells me “We’re already looking at February 9, February 12, and February 15” — that will give McCain’s opponents in the conservative world more time to press their case. “There is an increasing sense of urgency among conservatives that has led them to rally toward Romney, in that he would be a better standard bearer for the party on issues that are important to conservatives,” the aide says.
But even if Romney were to win California, it might not mean a major change in the race. Unlike the big winner-take-all states in which McCain is leading, California awards its delegates by congressional district, meaning both Romney and McCain will leave the state with delegates. If Romney does not make significant progress on Super Tuesday, he might decide not to make the investment required to go on.
The key to that decision, and a fundamental question of this campaign, is whether Romney’s advertising blitzes have any lasting positive effect, or whether they are like putting a lighter under a piece of damp wood. The wood will stay lit as long as you hold the flame beneath it, but it will never catch fire by itself. Romney might be like that with the voters. As long as he keeps the TV ads going, he can do well in the polls. But take the ads away, and he fails to catch fire. If Romney himself makes the determination that the results of Super Tuesday are more the result of expensive advertising — and not a powerful last-minute movement against McCain — he might decide the time has come to stop.