How Gingrich's candidacy could help Santorum

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This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

When Mitt Romney walked into the West Virginia Republican delegate convention on Feb. 5, 2008, he had every reason to believe that he was about to notch a key Super Tuesday victory that would help spark his candidacy.

The Romney campaign had been laying the groundwork in West Virginia for a year-and-a-half, while John McCain and Mike Huckabee barely had a footprint in the state. West Virginia's system that year awarded 18 of its convention delegates based on the results of a vote taken by 1,207 county delegates who had gathered that day in a giant ballroom in Charleston.

This rule placing delegate allocation in the hands of party regulars, rather than voters, was assumed to be a major asset for the well-organized Romney. But the system ended up being his downfall.

After Romney fell just short of the 50 percent threshold required to win on the first ballot, McCain's and Ron Paul's forces defected en masse to Huckabee on the second ballot, propelling the former Arkansas governor to just over 50 percent of the vote -- and a win. Romney dropped out of the race two days later.

The former Massachusetts governor's unpleasant experience in the Mountain State serves as a reminder that if he fails to secure the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination on the first ballot of the 2012 Republican National Convention, all bets may be off.

By any measure, Romney remains the favorite to clinch the nomination before heading to Tampa in late August. He has won over 55 percent of the delegates awarded thus far (468 of 843, according to the latest CBS News count), and the electoral terrain ahead appears to favor him.

As his campaign alluded in a memo last week, Romney is expected to win all of the delegates in the four remaining winner-take-all contests: Utah, New Jersey, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., and he appears strong in delegate-rich California and New York, where voters have yet to weigh in.

But as the nominating fight shifts this week to Puerto Rico and Louisiana, Rick Santorum is aiming to build on his Deep South victories to notch two upset wins in contests that could shift momentum inarguably to his side and make the prospect of Romney falling short of 1,144 delegates more plausible.

Although he has been losing the Catholic vote to Romney, Santorum may benefit Sunday from the faith he shares with 85 percent of Puerto Rico's population, and on Tuesday, he will aim to rack up big margins in the largely rural middle and southern swaths of Illinois, putting himself in position to give Romney a run for his money in that state.

Further down the line, early polls show Santorum ahead in his home state of Pennsylvania and also in Texas -- the GOP's second-largest delegate prize.

But Romney's financial and organizational strength and early delegate advantage mean that Santorum will likely need something else to keep the race competitive down the stretch, and Gingrich may be just that wild card.

Despite his disappointing second-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday and increasing calls in conservative circles for him to drop out of the race to create an easier path for Santorum, Gingrich's continued presence in the campaign may be the only way that Romney can be denied the 1,144 delegates he needs to lock it up.

If Gingrich were to drop out, various polls show that Santorum would garner the majority of the former speaker's support. Nonetheless, in a two-man race with Romney, the math is more difficult for Santorum, not less. Romney figures to win enough of the delegates Gingrich otherwise would have taken to prevent Santorum from overtaking him.

But by remaining a candidate -- even one who has almost no chance of accumulating enough delegates to win on the first ballot at the convention -- Gingrich could lay his hopes on the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that denied Romney a West Virginia victory in 2008.

"People are assuming if Newt gets out, it helps Santorum because it sets up a one-on-one contest against Romney," said RealClearPolitics senior elections analyst Sean Trende. "But by Newt staying in, he's actually gobbling up some of Romney's delegates. And that's the name of the game at this point: keeping Romney below 1,144. So I think Newt staying in actually helps Santorum."

Santorum and his top aides have thus far declined to call on Gingrich to drop out.

By contrast, the super PAC backing Santorum last week publicly called on the former Georgia congressman to exit the race.

But asked whether there is some logic to the idea that Gingrich, by staying in the race, might ultimately give Santorum his best chance of winning, the Red White & Blue Fund's chief strategist, Nick Ryan, agreed that there is.

"I don't think that's crazy, and I think it's possible that that prevents Romney from getting to 1,144," he said. "I think there's a few different paths to get to Tampa, and I don't know that you can look at any one today and say this is the path we need."

Ryan added that his group is no longer making a direct pitch for Gingrich to drop out. For his part, Gingrich appears to be acknowledging that his only shot at the nomination is to win it in a convention floor fight.

The rules governing the allegiances of pledged and unpledged delegates vary from state to state, but there is historic precedent to give Gingrich a sliver of hope -- a scenario from the 20th century that the former college history professor has begun alluding to more frequently.

During the 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood won a plurality of the vote on the first ballot, while Sen. Warren Harding came in a distant sixth place. Over the course of the next 10 ballots, Wood's support rose and then fell, while Harding methodically accumulated a larger and larger percentage of the vote until he finally achieved a majority to become the GOP nominee and, ultimately, the 29th president of the United States.

Harding's nomination was secured in the "smoke-filled room" that soon became a metaphor for political decisions decided by a small cadre of party bosses.

Those smoke-filled rooms no longer exist, and key officials no longer have nearly the clout with delegates that they once did.

In the end, it likely would be difficult for either Santorum or Gingrich to persuade enough delegates to abandon Romney and deny him the nomination, especially if the former Massachusetts governor continues to lead in most head-to-head polls against President Obama.

And for all the talk about how Romney has failed to expand his base of support within the party, neither of his chief rivals has done much to cut into Romney's margins among the more moderate swath of Republicans that has boosted his delegate lead.

But the steep odds have not kept some anti-Romney Republicans from quietly floating the idea of a Santorum/Gingrich ticket, and the Gingrich himself was unusually deferential to Santorum at the top of his concession speech on Tuesday night.

According to recent exit polls, more than half of Gingrich's supporters said that they would be satisfied with Santorum as the nominee, while less than a third felt that way about Romney.

The possibility that Gingrich's continued presence in the race could help deny Romney the nomination on the first ballot remains slim. But if Santorum continues his winning streak and Gingrich remains viable enough to continue accumulating a significant percentage of delegates, it may ultimately be Romney, not Santorum, who has the most to gain from the former speaker's exit from the field.

More from RealClearPolitics:

Tuesday's Republican Primaries Changed Nothing
Santorum Has Big Lead in Home State of Pennsylvania

  • Scott Conroy On Twitter»

    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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