Michael Dukakis was the first politician I ever heard describe the presidential campaign as a “marathon, not a sprint.” But he was not the last.
Since the first campaign I covered in 1988, I’ve always been sort of impressed by candidates who – win or lose—just hang in there.
Sometimes it is unfathomable. Hopefuls stay on the trail long after their viability has been expended, as a race for the White House morphs into a campaign to get politics’ ultimate consolation prize -- a speaking role at the party’s nominating convention.
Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Jackson both had to know they were not going to be president well before the primaries ended in the years they ran. Years. But by hanging in there longer than electoral reason dictated, each got to his party’s convention podium (and were launched into the lucrative world of partisan cable punditry as well).
Now that we are well into the 2012 primary season, some of the contenders seem to be starting to notice how bleak campaigning can be when the victories are few and far between.
Newt and Callista Gingrich (FlickrCC/Gage Skidmore)
Newt Gingrich is staking his political feasibility on Georgia next week, the state he represented in Congress for two decades, including as speaker of the House. But it has been a long six weeks since Gingrich pulled off his biggest victory of the year in South Carolina.
It is clear he realizes his predicament.
"I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race," he told a breakfast meeting with Georgia business leaders on Thursday. "But if I win Georgia, the following week we go to Alabama and Mississippi and I think I'll win both of those and we have a good opportunity to win in Kansas."
But he has to survive next Tuesday first.
The path is not quite as narrow for Rick Santorum. Even though he lost to Romney in Arizona and Michigan last week, he has still been able to scoop up delegates along the way. He sees the marathon aspects of this race.
"This is an episode of Survivor,” he said on Thursday, according to Yahoo’s Chris Moody. “We just need to stay on the island, not get voted off, stay on message."
But Santorum has used that metaphor before – just before he lost in South Carolina.
“Our hope is that we come out here in a very strong position hopefully with the field a little bit narrowed, maybe a lot narrowed,” he said on a Jan. 16 visit to Columbia. “I always felt like this campaign is like an episode of Survivor. It’s just a matter of staying in there and doing well.… I’m confident that once the field narrows and we get a one-on-one shot at Gov. Romney, we’re going to do very, very well.”
Since then, Santorum has won a few -- in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri – and lost a few, most notably in Michigan.
And although the field has narrowed and Santorum is certainly the strongest candidate standing not named Mitt, the definition of “staying in there and doing well” has shifted. It now means maintaining a lead in Ohio strong enough to dent Romney’s now formidable momentum.
“Mr. Santorum's candidacy will realistically be at an end if he loses the Buckeye State, though he could linger for weeks,” Bush White House political director Karl Rove writes on his website this week. “Even a win leaves him on life support unless he can also best Mr. Romney in Tuesday's Southern contests, coming in first or second with Mr. Romney trailing in second or third place.”
GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney (CNN)
As long as the possibility of a rebound seems possible, every competitor wants to gut it out. “They keep asking about winning particular states in this campaign,” Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, said on the night he lost in not one, but two states. “But guess what? We're still winning a lot of delegates!"
What Paul means is that a lot of delegates haven’t yet been awarded, and he could still win some of them.
Leave aside for a moment that no one ever gets elected president that way. Mitt Romney was correct when he claimed the victory stage in Michigan on Tuesday night, saying, “We didn’t win by a lot, but we won by enough and that’s all that counts.”
But, thanks to super PAC financing and the shadow of a possibility, candidates still get to stay on the stage. They continue to organize rallies and give speeches. They run television ads and sponsor misleading robocalls. They say it’s not over until it’s over.
And no matter how far behind they fall, even after all the votes are counted, they never, ever give a concession speech.
That too is gutting it out.