It’s not just Mitt Romney’s fault that he has been unable to effectively wrap up the Republican presidential nomination by now.
Two big differences from four years ago – a less compressed primary calendar and the proportional allocation of delegates – make it impossible for any GOP frontrunner to build an insurmountable lead over his rivals before at least late April.
Yet, that a candidate with Mr. Romney’s money, organization and establishment backing has been unable to make short shrift of such flawed rivals as a beyond-the-mainstream Rick Santorum and a beyond-the-pale Newt Gingrich is giving party bigwigs heartburn.
The fear is that Mr. Romney’s inability to suppress the current insurgency of Mr. Santorum, and his past and potentially future problems with Mr. Gingrich, presage his weakness as a general election candidate against a far more formidable Barack Obama.
Establishment whispers of drafting a consensus candidate in advance of the August GOP convention is back on the front burner this week as polls show Mr. Romney fighting to regain his advantage over Mr. Santorum in his home state of Michigan.
If Mr. Romney were to lose next Tuesday’s Michigan primary, or only pull off a narrow victory, those whispers would turn into cries of desperation.
Mr. Romney has displayed astonishing tone deafness in his failure to speak the concerns of working-class voters, many of whom have been victims of the kind of clinical corporate restructuring the ex-Bain Capital chief considers his life’s work.
What’s more, the central conceit of Mr. Romney’s candidacy – that he is the turnaround expert needed to get the economy moving – is undermined by Mr. Obama’s new pitch that “America is back” and that old-fashioned manufacturing is leading the way.
Mr. Obama may be whistling past the graveyard given the truly daunting challenges still facing the American economy as it struggles to come to terms with a bloated public debt, aging population and workforce ill-adapted to the needs of the 21st century.
But as long as he can rely on employment statistics showing positive monthly growth averaging 200,000 jobs or more, it may be enough to get him a second term in November if he faces opposition of the likes of Mr. Romney.
No wonder the whispers in GOP ranks are getting louder.
In the political equivalent of Fantasy Football, Republican pundits and establishment types are still dreaming about Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or former Florida governor Jeb Bush at the top of the GOP ticket.
All three have publicly demurred, despite their obvious ambition.
But while each of them is a better politician than Mr. Romney, all of them have their flaws and it is far from clear they would have an easier time winning over the GOP base, much less beating Mr. Obama in November.
Mr. Daniels famously called for a “truce” on social issues, a declaration that all but makes his candidacy a non-starter with the evangelical voters fueling Mr. Santorum’s rise.
Mr. Christie is similarly distrusted by social conservatives, despite his vetoing last week of a gay marriage bill that passed the New Jersey legislature.
Mr. Bush would be the strongest candidate of them all, despite his dynastic lineage, which is still a net negative among voters. He is popular with all wings of the Republican Party and, unlike any of the others, has built bridges with Hispanic voters.
But Mr. Bush, who has refused to endorse Mr. Romney, has his eyes on the prize in 2016. So does Mr. Christie, who has vigorously endorsed the ex-Massachusetts governor.
So, in all likelihood, Mr. Obama will face either Mr. Romney or Mr. Santorum in the fall.
And the odds still overwhelmingly favour Mr. Romney over the ex-Pennsylvania senator.
All the rest is about as meaningful as Fantasy Football.