David Sparks

The fat lady won't sing on Super Tuesday

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Sparks
February 2, 2008

THERE'S A side of me that resists giving career advice to rich successful guys with good hair. That said, there's still hope, Mitt Romney.

There's a big difference between the Super Bowl and Super Tuesday. At the end of the Super Bowl, the champion is crowned and the season is over. At the end of Super Tuesday, only half the delegates will have been chosen, with 16 weeks to go.

To be sure, John McCain has the momentum. If the national media could award the nomination today, McCain would be their man. But, there are several factors working against a McCain coronation.

Super Tuesday is a mix of all kinds of states across the country with a mix of winner-take-all and proportional allocation of delegates as well as open (independents welcome) and closed (Republicans only) contests. Western state Mormons could give Romney pockets of strength, as could Northeastern states. Mike Huckabee could be a factor in some Southern states, including Georgia. While McCain's momentum is a big advantage, the results will likely be mixed instead of a landslide victory.

McCain now has 93 delegates, Romney 59, and Huckabee 40. With Super Tuesday, the delegates will have been selected in the first five weeks at a rate of 238 delegates per week. Afterward, delegates will be squeezed out at a rate of only 64 per week over four months.

At this point, the pace and the dynamics of the campaign change dramatically.

This slowdown will create a huge drought with the political cognoscenti, and the race may begin to lose its national attention, hurting the candidate riding on momentum. The focus of the race will turn more and more to delegate counts. The Republican delegates, those already selected and those yet named, will become very popular.

After a series of "semifinals" in the first five weeks, Romney is where he has wanted to be, in a virtual one-on-one contest against a candidate to the left of him in a nominating process dominated by conservatives. I helped run the primary campaign for George H.W. Bush against Ronald Reagan in 1980. It's no fun being to the left of your opponent in a Republican race.

McCain presents a political cognitive dissonance to Republican activists. Traditionally, Republicans love the heir apparent and the front-runner status that McCain enjoys. On the other hand, McCain is the piñata of the conservative talk shows and websites across the country, important opinion leaders with the Republican base. There will not be a comfortable coalescing around McCain as the presumptive nominee.

Romney is still sitting on a pot of money. With the contests drawn out and with McCain scrambling with conservative donors, Romney will be able to use his money strategically, cherry-picking in delegate-rich contests.

After Tuesday, the media will target the states they consider important. Tops on their list will be Ohio on March 4. Next to Michigan, which Romney won and which has a similar economy, the Buckeye State will probably be friendly to Romney.

Romney is still due his "Comeback Kid" moment with the voters. McCain was struggling for campaign money and lost members of his staff last summer but made his comeback. Hillary Clinton lost Iowa and battled back in New Hampshire. The media will have second thoughts about ending this race too early. A new-look Romney, perhaps with more humility and a sharpened message, might give his campaign a second wind.

Huckabee looks like the Pat Robertson of this cycle, not a good thing if you are trying to build a broad coalition, but seemingly able to attract a 10 percent to 20 percent niche in most contests.

As the candidate to the right of Romney, Huckabee's votes might go Romney's way if he leaves the race. The problem will be the stretch for Huckabee's base from Conservative Christian to Mormon. It's still worth seeing how "Romney-Huckabee" looks on a sign.

To be sure, it's more fun this week in McCain's headquarters than in Romney's. But Mitt might have a quarter or two left in his game.

David Sparks is assistant to the dean of the McCormack School of Policy Studies at UMass-Boston. He held senior positions on the 1980 and 1988 Bush for President campaigns.

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