Mitt Romney is still extremely likely to get the GOP nomination, but it looks like he will have to run in the general election as an Independent. He certainly seems to have no home in the Republican Party.
That, it seems to me, is the only discernible message coming out of Super Tuesday, which is usually a clarifying series of contests but yesterday succeeded only in muddying the outcome, even though it would require a daunting test of math for Rick Santorum (or Newt Gingrich) to find any way to garner enough delegates to beat Romney to the nomination.
Just a snapshot of the final results in Ohio tells the main story: Romney eked out a 1 percent plurality over Santorum by losing most of the traditional Republican districts but managing to take the big urban and suburban centers--Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus--that usually vote Democratic. He lost 69 of Ohio's 88 counties.
He will need those 69 counties--and more--to beat Barack Obama in November in this bellwether state, without which no Republican has ever won the presidency. Many of those Ohio Republican voters will, of course, opt for him over Obama, but it's hard to imagine them lining up enthusiastically for a man they don't see as a champion of their political beliefs and values. It says a great deal that the base's distaste for and mistrust of Romney runs so deep that a washed-up politician who was disliked even by his Republican colleagues in the Senate and a scandal-scarred former Speaker are still seen as viable alternatives, even at this late date. Even in Virginia, Romney's only opponent, a once-fringe player named Ron Paul, got 40 percent of the vote. Never mind what happened in the South and the West, where the GOP base has even less use for Romney.
In the end, Super Tuesday only supplied another heap of evidence that Romney is seen as Yesterday's Republican by the party's fast-evolving base, which is in the throes of a rebellion against Big-Government-accomodating Republicans (who include, ironically, both Santorum and Gingrich) and a country they think has evolved fatally leftward in social values. By rights Romney really should be following Sen. Olympia Snowe out the same door through which so many others of that extinct political class--centrist Republicans-- have been forced to exit, permanently exiled by a party that they no longer recognize and that no longer recognizes them.
It's no surprise, really, that Romney so often looks and acts so uncomfortable on the campaign trail. Speaking to Republican crowds, he is like a person who has crashed a party and is only pretending to be one of the invited guests. Is it any wonder that he didn't dare talk back to Rush Limbaugh?
So Romney's only choice if he is to win the presidency, it seems to me, is to embrace his fate: if his party no longer wants him, perhaps the large section of independent and centrist voters in the country who also feel disenfranchised by a self-marginalized Republican Party--a party that has doomed Congress to lower approval ratings than the idea of Communists taking over the U.S. government --still do. Romney needs to work hard --starting now -- at winning these voters over even as he continues to throw just enough red meat at his party base to put him over the top in delegates by the summer.
Oddly enough for a candidate whose chief vulnerability--pointed out again and again with great effectiveness by Santorum--is that he resembles the incumbent Obama too much, Romney needs to arrive at the same conclusion that Obama did: he really can do nothing to appease today's Republicans. They don't and won't want him. So Romney's best case now is that he will make a Better Obama.
He's certainly not going to persuade anyone that he's a better Republican.