In the ongoing soap opera that is the Republican leadership contest, Super Tuesday on March 6 would be the season finale – a climactic contest in which 10 states are up for grabs, and the overall winner emerging as the Republican challenger to Barack Obama.
But that is not how the GOP leadership contest will end.
It will go on, and on.
The longer it goes on, the more corrosive it will be for the Republican party brand and the eventual presidential nominee trying to ensure Mr. Obama will be a one-term president.
But in the meantime, here are the three possible scenarios that will emerge out of the Super Tuesday contests, beginning with the worst-case scenario:
Panic button scenario
There was hand-wringing over the weak GOP field and talk of enlisting a ‘white knight’ candidate – former Florida governor Jeb Bush, current New Jersey governor Chris Christie, or current Indiana governor Mitch Daniels – following Mitt Romney losses in South Carolina in January and a string of Midwest losses in February.
The Republican party establishment’s anxiety attack is now, more or less, under control after Romney wins in Michigan and Arizona last week.
Ohio is the jewel of the Super Tuesday contests. Its 66 delegates may not be the most that are up for grabs, but it is a rust-belt state that will be a crucial state in the November presidential election.
Two competing polls show that Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are in a dead-heat.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday shows Mr. Romney leading Mr. Santorum 34 per cent to 31 per cent. A NBC/Marist poll on Sunday shows a slightly different outcome: Mr. Santorum leading Mr. Romney 34 per cent to 32 per cent.
Finely-tuned economic messages have helped the Santorum and Romney campaigns in a state still scared by the recession, but where the unemployment rate, 7.7 per cent in January, is actually lower than the national average of 8.3 per cent.
The Republican party will reach for the panic button if it appears that Mr. Romney has lost Ohio to Mr. Santorum.
Combine that with Santorum wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee – southern states with strong evangelical currents that play to the Santorum candidacy.
Add to that a Newt Gingrich win in his home-state of Georgia, which has the most delegates up for grabs.
Then you have three candidates vowing to fight on. Sorry, four candidates: expect Ron Paul to carry on.
And somewhere in the White House, staff will be high-fiving each other.
Mushy middle scenario
Appearing to win or lose in the Republican leadership contest is sometimes a matter of spin.
Did Mr. Santorum blow his momentum in Michigan and lose what was shaping up to be a massive Romney loss in his home state?
Or did Mr. Santorum end up exposing the supposed front-runner’s vulnerability by winning 14 of Michigan’s delegates compared to Mr. Romney’s 16?
Every candidate wants the appearance of momentum. Mr. Santorum had it after his string of Midwest wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. But Mr. Romney appears to have regained it after his Arizona and Michigan wins.
Ultimately, this has been a contest about fund-raising, building strong ground operations, and winning delegates. In other words, getting to the magic number of 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
Here is the current delegate total, according to the news and analysis website RealClearPolitics: Mr. Romney: 173 delegates, Mr. Santorum: 74 delegates, Mr. Paul: 37 delegates, Mr. Gingrich: 33 delegates.
The total number of delegates at stake in the Super Tuesday contests: 437.
In other words, in one day more delegates are at stake than in the entire contest since it got underway on January 3rd with the Iowa caucuses.
The remarkable possibility in the Super Tuesday contests is that Mr. Romney may not win the most states in the 10-state contest, but may emerge with the most delegates.
“This path involves Mr. Romney winning all or nearly all of the delegates in his strongest states, while getting a decent minority of them in the states that he does not win; many of which tend to have more proportional delegate allocation rules,” writes Nate Silver of the New York Times.
His best estimate has Mr. Romney winning 217 delegates (50 per cent of Super Tuesday delegates), Mr. Santorum winning 107 delegates (24 per cent), Mr. Gingrich winning 61 delegates (14 per cent) and Mr. Paul winning 25 (6 per cent).
The Romney camp will argue that its campaign is strengthened on the basis of total delegates won across the 10 states, and quite possibly a key, albeit narrow, Ohio win.
There is a scenario in which the Ohio popular vote is awfully close, but Mr. Romney can still carry more delegates, an outcome made possible because the Santorum campaign is not eligible to win 18 of Ohio’s 66 delegates. Similarly, the Santorum campaign is not on the ballot in Virginia, which will be a Romney-Paul contest.
The Santorum camp will argue that key wins in Tennessee and Oklahoma, combined with a strong showing in Ohio, strengthened its campaign by narrowing the delegates gap.
The Gingrich camp will argue that a win in Georgia, the former speaker of the House of Representative’s home state, breathes new life in to the Gingrich campaign.
The Paul camp will argue that by picking up delegates in contests across the country, its campaign is as energized as ever.
This is the ‘mushy middle’ scenario: each candidate with a case for why his candidacy ought to continue.
Mitt Romney emerges with renewed momentum
By winning Ohio, Massachusetts (where he served as governor), Vermont (next door), Idaho (large Mormon population), and Virginia, the Romney campaign will have the air of momentum and the GOP establishment can put some of its unease to rest.
The Romney campaign can also add some key backings in the run-up to the Super Tuesday vote with the Republican party’s No. 2 official in the House of Representatives endorsing Mr. Romney.
“What we’re doing is we’re coalescing around Mitt Romney’s plan to actually address the economic challenges we have,” Representative Eric Cantor, and fiscal conservative told CNN on Monday.
But there are ways that the Romney campaign can emerge from Super Tuesday with an even stronger argument by winning the popular vote and delegate count in Ohio, while sneaking out a southern state win like Tennessee, which has witnessed a tightening of the race.
Both polls show Mr. Santorum leading: according to the Public Policy Polling firm, Mr. Santorum leads Mr. Romney 34 per cent to 29 per cent; while American Research Group poll shows Mr. Santorum leading Mr. Romney 35 per cent to 31 per cent. Taking into account the margin of error in polling, the race could be even tighter.
“Mr. Romney has won contests in the Northeast, the Midwest, the West and in the southern state of Florida. But a victory by Mr. Romney in Tennessee would damp claims that he has only a weak hold on the South, the region where his support in polls has been softest,” reports the Wall Street Journal.
The Romney campaign is pushing hard to win delegates around Knoxville, Tennessee, and the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Gingrich’s home state.
Even a narrow loss in Tennessee and a bigger loss in Georgia could mean that the Romney campaign, thanks to arcane rules on delegate distribution, is able to pick up delegates in wealthy urban centres where his message resonates with voters.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of Super Tuesday is the one the Santorum campaign faces. It needs a convincing win in Ohio, combined with wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee, to make the argument that Mr. Santorum is indeed the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney.
“If Romney beats Santorum [in Ohio] it is the beginning of the end not just for Santorum but the dreams of all those who wanted to deny Romney the nomination,” University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato told The Guardian.