Aura of inevitability grows around Romney

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a town-hall campaign meeting on the campus of Bradley University March 19, 2012, in Peoria, Ill.
Getty Images
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a town-hall campaign meeting on the campus of Bradley University March 19, 2012, in Peoria, Ill.
Getty Images

Mitt Romney has won over the establishment. He has won more estimated delegates than all of his rivals combined. And now, it seems, he's finally winning over the media as well.

Romney's decisive victory over Rick Santorum in Tuesday's Illinois primary appears to have shifted the narrative around the former Massachusetts governor. For most of this topsy-turvy primary fight, pundits have cast Romney as a weak front-runner who cannot convince conservatives in his party to rally behind him. And while perceptions of Romney haven't entirely changed, Santorum's failure to make a splash on Tuesday seems to have finally cemented the notion that Romney is now almost certain to be the Republican who will face President Obama in the fall.

Consider this morning's headlines, as cataloged by Politico's indefatigable Mike Allen: An analysis from the Associated Press headlined "The GOP race is now lining up for Romney," a Wall Street Journal story proclaiming that "Leaders Urge GOP to Unify, Back Romney," a Los Angeles Times story proclaiming that "The tide may have turned for Romney." 

Though Santorum and Newt Gingrich have shown themselves eager to repeatedly attack the "elite media" throughout this campaign, the candidate who has gotten the harshest coverage in this campaign has probably been Romney. Most reporters and pundits never really expected Santorum and Gingrich to win, so their victories (Santorum's three-state sweep! Gingrich's South Carolina shocker!) were treated as particularly significant. Romney, meanwhile, was the expected nominee from the start, so his losses were magnified, while his narrower wins (think Ohio) were treated not as triumphs but as signs that Romney might not be able to overcome conservative skepticism.

We've now reached the point, however, where such calculations start to go out the window. Let's say Romney loses in Louisiana on Saturday, continuing his losing streak in Southern primaries. So what? It won't put much a dent in his significant delegate lead, and the primary calendarin April looks great for Romney: It's stacked with northeastern contests that will almost certainly allow Romney to build on his already-big delegate advantage. (And it's worth noting that Louisiana is less evangelical and less rural that the Southern states that have come before it; with Santorum and Gingrich likely to split the highly-conservative vote, Romney has a legitimate chance to win.) 

At this point, Romney's rivals have been reduced to arguing that they will keep Romney from the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the convention - and then, at the convention, somehow steal the nomination out from under him. That scenario is only even remotely plausible, however, if Romney's lead was small enough that he could be convincingly cast as undeserving of the nomination. It's clear now that even if Romney doesn't get to 1,144, he'll get close enough that many in the party will find a way to put him over the top in order to avoid a messy and divisive convention. Gingrich and Ron Paul may not even be able to compete, since they won't be on the first ballot unless they manage to win a plurality of delegates from five states. 

Meanwhile, the GOP's premiere elder statement have started to suggest that Republicans need to start getting over their misgivings and rallying behind the front-runner. On Wednesday, Jeb Bush endorsed Romney, a move that will help tamp down the (essentially baseless) speculation that Bush or another white-knight candidate might swoop in at the last minute and try to steal the nomination. And on Thursday, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour - who voted for Gingrich - said on "CBS This Morning"that the time is nearly here for Republicans to coalesce around the frontrunner. Later that day, Sen. Jim DeMint suggested Santorum and Gingrich should drop out, saying, it's time for "the candidates to do a little self-reflection here on what's good for our country."

This isn't to say that concerns about Romney are going away -- four in ten Illinois Republicans said Romney isn't conservative enough, and even four in ten Romney voters said they had reservations about the candidate. But Republicans do appear to be coming to grips with the fact that he is their likely nominee - and that keeping the race going much longer only helps President Obama in the coming general election battle. As DeMint said Thursday: "The sooner we can make a decision, the sooner we can focus on the real problem, which is Obama."

And while the press will continue to cover the sometimes-silly day-to-day machinations of the primary fight - the Etch A Sketch flapyesterday is a perfect example - the tenor of the coverage is already shifting. Unless they can pull off a major surprise, Romney's rivals will see themselves increasingly discussed not as viable candidates but potential spoilers, while discussion of Romney will shift from his weakness with conservatives to his prospects in the general election. This race isn't over, of course. But if perception is reality, then it's pretty darn close.

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