At one point, it looked possible that Romney might win South Carolina and Florida, in which case the primary race would effectively be over. A South Carolina win for Gingrich, which looks likely, means that the race is going to go on for several more weeks. I prefer Romney to the other candidates on offer. But I nonetheless think it’s a good thing that the race seems likely to become a long contest pitting Romney against one main rival. (Even if I would have preferred someone other than Gingrich to play that role, for reasons nicely described here.)
First, as Sarah Palin rightly said, a longer race gives candidates more time to hone their skills (Romney’s Bain answer last night was the best he has given). It also gives voters more time to reach an informed judgment.
Second, as I wrote when I first made the case for Romney, his record does not merit a kind of nomination by acclamation. I think he’d be a better candidate and president than the alternatives, but conservatives have valid reservations that ought to be registered.
Third, active campaigns in more states might lead to stronger parties in those states, which after all was the reason the Republicans adopted the current delegate-selection rules.
Fourth, Romney will be a stronger candidate if he overcomes some political adversity rather than coasts from success to success without ever really being tested.
Fifth, for Romney to lock up the nomination early would mean that in many states the primary would become a contest between a not-very-active Romney campaign and an energetic Ron Paul movement seeking to send delegates to the convention to win concessions rather than the nomination. With no other candidates on offer, Paul’s vote totals would include a lot of die-hard Romney foes who would not vote for him were Gingrich or Santorum in the mix. Keeping the race going reduces the chance that Paul comes to the convention with enough delegates to fight over whether the platform should replace all references to “Israel” with “the Zionist entity,” or whatever they decide to demand.
Sixth, if Romney wins the nomination in a long race it will be harder to attribute it to a fractured opposition, and he might even win a majority of the votes.
Romney still has a better shot at the nomination than anyone else. The people working for his campaign may not like what’s coming tomorrow, but even some of them might come to appreciate that a South Carolina setback will ultimately work out for the best.