GOP race has shades of Reagan-Ford marathon in '76

WALL STREET JOURNAL STAFF

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is introduced at Guerdon Enterprises, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 in Boise, Idaho. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

George W. Bush took 51 days to get there in 2000. John McCain needed 11 more days in 2008.

But by the middle of March, both had racked up enough delegates to nab the Republican presidential nomination and turn to the general election.

If only Mitt Romney – or any of his rivals – were so lucky.

Already epic for its twists and turns, this year’s nomination quest now appears all but certain to run well into May, and more likely into June. By some calculations, it could extend to the final contest, in Utah, on June 26. Even then, it’s possible, though very unlikely, that no candidate will have clinched the 1,144 delegates needed to assure the nomination.

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The general election, when Americans will decide between the Republican nominee and Democratic President Barack Obama, is in November.

All this would make for the most gruelling GOP race since the Ronald Reagan-Gerald Ford marathon went all the way to the convention in 1976, the year Apple was founded and ABBA topped the pop charts.

“What we’re looking at here is a truly long slog, maybe even another Reagan-Ford battle,” said Dave Carney, a long-time GOP strategist who helped run Texas governor Rick Perry’s ill-fated presidential bid this season.

Republicans observed how the extended Democratic slugfest in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton energized Democrats across the country and sharpened Mr. Obama for November. They revamped their own rules in 2010 to assure a more competitive contest in 2012.

They are getting their wish.

The contest so far lacks a single, decisive moment, as the 2008 Florida primary turned out to be for Mr. McCain. This year, not even Super Tuesday–the 10-state chessboard on March 6 that puts 437 delegates in play–is likely to provide real clarity.

The length of the contest is partly due to the stretched-out primary calendar this year and the way delegates are allocated. There are far fewer big-delegate states early in the race, and more states that will divvy up their delegates proportionally, allowing second- and third-place finishers to claim a share and keep their candidacies alive.

But it also has to do with the party’s unwillingness to rally around any one candidate. While Mr. Romney has a 54-delegate lead over Newt Gingrich, who has the second-largest cache, he hasn’t shown the dominance that would prompt leading rivals to drop out.

A look at the remaining races and their arcane rules for delegate allocation shows how hard it will be for any candidate to seal the GOP nomination until the end of May, at the earliest.

Here’s one way to consider the coming contests.

Even if Mr. Romney were able to extend his delegate lead by winning all nine primaries from now through Super Tuesday on March 6, he would likely emerge with just 370 pledged delegates, fewer than a third of the 1,144 needed to claim the nomination.

In a more plausible scenario, he fares well in the northeast, where he has spent his adult life; wins Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul are on the ballot; claims Arizona, where he is favoured; and accrues a good chunk of the vote in Ohio and Michigan. But he struggles in the southern states of Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, all of which he lost in 2008.

Josh Putnam, a professor at Davidson College, outside Charlotte, N.C., who is an authority on the primary process, considered that outcome and concluded that it would boost Mr. Romney’s current 54-delegate edge over Mr. Gingrich to a lead of at least 140 over either Mr. Gingrich or Rick Santorum – and still leave Mr. Romney without even a quarter of the delegates he needs.

Romney strategists say their aim then would be to widen that margin, much as Mr. Obama did with his narrow lead in the protracted 2008 nomination fight against Mrs. Clinton.

But the race would be far from over. From there, even if the former Massachusetts governor won all 19 primaries on the calendar through the end of May, he would end up well shy of the threshold needed to take the nomination, according to Mr. Putnam.

In his calculations, Mr. Putnam assumed that Mr. Romney won each contest with a substantial 49 per cent of the vote. (He put aside the caucus states; only a few award bankable delegates based on the results of caucus-day balloting.) Mr. Romney’s rivals are all keenly aware of the math – and the many ways they can play it in their favour in the weeks and months ahead.

“What we’re looking at is a morning after Super Tuesday with a scrambled field in which everyone has picked up a handful of delegates and a handful of states, and this thing just keeps on going,” said Martin Baker, Mr. Gingrich’s national political director.

Betting on strong showings in Georgia and the other Southern states, Mr. Gingrich promised last week to take the fight all the way to California’s primary in June, and from there to the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.

In a Feb. 7 memo, Romney political director Rich Beeson said only Mr. Romney had the money and organization to win “the methodical, long-haul campaign” ahead. The campaign declined to comment for this article.

Mr. Santorum, coming off an unexpected sweep of three state contests on Feb. 7, is showing the same kind of fight. He is placing big bets on large, industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio, while also investing in several out-of-the-way pockets, such as Idaho.

Some Republicans, among them former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, think a longer, more spirited campaign will produce a more durable competitor against Mr. Obama. Others rue the millions spent on intraparty battles. Polls already show that the highly negative campaign is driving away some of the swing voters who tend to decide national elections.

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