The Mitt Romney campaign moved aggressively yesterday to argue that victories in six out of 10 states on Super Tuesday mean none of the rival candidates have a chance to amass the delegates they need to stop him capturing the nomination and to quash talk of a brokered party convention in August.
But the propaganda blast, made in memos, briefings to reporters and television appearances by the candidate, was countered by a new outbreak of hand-wringing from inside the conservative wing of the party asking why Mr Romney did not perform more convincingly, losing three states to Rick Santorum and one to Newt Gingrich.
It was an extremely narrow victory in the key state of Ohio that sparked the most anguished debate. While a loss here would have been far more serious for Mr Romney, the fact that he found himself eking out a mere one percentage point margin over Mr Santorum after outspending him by at least four to one raised familiar questions about his candidacy. Why does he seem unable to seal the deal? Where was the Super Tuesday knockout punch?
"He may have the math," Robert Zimmerman, a National Democratic Committee member, said, "but he has lost the momentum." Dan Schnur, a Republican and former campaign adviser to John McCain, also saw a mixed outcome. "The good news for Romney is that he is still the front-runner. The bad news is that the doubts about his candidacy are only going to grow stronger."
If there was urgency in the messaging from Camp Romney it was also because the next stretch looks rocky. Caucus voting in Kansas on Saturday followed by contests next week in Mississippi and Alabama offer fresh openings for Mr Santorum, who has ample reason to declare himself the only viable alternative. Illinois, voting on 20 March, is also a state where Mr Romney might trip up. A Romney memo laid out why it is impossible for anyone to catch up in the delegate count – coming out of Tuesday, Mr Romney has an estimated 415 delegates while Mr Santorum owns 176, Newt Gingrich 105 and Ron Paul has 47 – but failed to say how he hopes to reach the magic number of 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination.
"Super Tuesday dramatically reduced the likelihood that any of Governor Romney's opponents can obtain the Republican nomination," the memo said. "As Governor Romney's opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person's chance of winning they are improving is President Obama's."
That Mr Romney even addressed the chatter that the race may not be settled, mathematically at least, before the convention in Tampa, was itself an admission of weakness. "One thing I can tell you for sure," he said on CNBC, "is there's not going to be a brokered convention where some new person comes in and becomes the nominee."
Conservative bloggers rushed to puncture the Romney balloon. "I'd be wondering who on my campaign staff gets fired first," Erick Erickson of the conservative blog RedState wrote. "Were I Mitt Romney I'd be wondering how I spent 5.5 times as much money as Rick Santorum and barely won Ohio."
Exit polls in Ohio and Tennessee showed four in 10 voters unsatisfied with the candidates they picked. They had Mr Santorum heavily outscoring Mr Romney among evangelical Christians, rural conservatives and blue collar Republicans. In Ohio only 22 per cent said Romney understood their problems, 31 per cent said Santorum did.
But Mr Santorum's case for crowing was also weak. If he had taken Ohio it might have been different. "For Romney, a win is a win," Peter Brown, of Quinnipiac polling, said. "Finishing a close second in Ohio is nice for Santorum, but second is second. What's his argument to donors? 'I can finish a close second?'"
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