Beyond Super Tuesday: Will calendar be kinder to a battered Mitt Romney?

Barring a major upset, Mitt Romney is still on track for the nomination. But Super Tuesday could have been a lot better for him, and the path ahead is daunting.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talks to reporters on his campaign plane before taking off for Boston, on March 6, in Columbus, Ohio.

For Mitt Romney, Super Tuesday could have been worse – he did, after all, win 6 of 10 states, about half of the delegates, and some 40 percent of the popular vote. 

But it also could have been a lot better.

Instead of wrapping up his nomination and convincing doubters that he can, in fact, win over conservative, Southern, and rural voters, he now looks to be entering a long slog into the spring before he can finally declare himself the GOP presidential nominee.

Yes, barring a major upset, Romney will still be the eventual nominee – but some Republicans are already worried about the toll that the repeated beatings will take on him, and what it will mean for his strength as a candidate in November.

Looking ahead at the rest of March and into April, the primary calendar isn't particularly kind to Romney.

The next three contests are in Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama – all unfavorable territory for him. Hawaii and Illinois are coming up this month too, and should be safer states for Romney, but so are Louisiana and Missouri. The calendar doesn't get a lot better for Romney until April 24, when New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island vote (as well as Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum's home state).

All of which – combined with his opponents' determination to stay in the race – means that Romney likely faces a long slog to the nomination, and a continued pummeling from Mr. Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and the super PACs who support them.

"Republican voters have gotten a good, long look at Mr. Romney; they find him likeable enough and not much more than that," writes New York Times polling expert Nate Silver. "Were his vote total just 3 percent lower in every state, distributed among the other candidates in some reasonable fashion, he would have lost Ohio and Alaska on Tuesday, and Michigan and Maine in February – and would have clearly lost Iowa rather than having 'tied' there."

CNN columnist John Avlon calls the current situation "close to a worst-case scenario" for Republicans, noting that even if Romney were to win every state going forward (which is unlikely), he wouldn't clinch the nomination until May – and that he may still not be able to win enough delegates to avoid a contested convention.

Some Romney detractors, like Erick Erickson from the conservative Red State blog, have conceded that Romney is likely to be the nominee – but they're pretty unhappy about where that leaves Republicans.

"[Romney] will be the nominee having lost the South, Appalachia, evangelicals, conservatives, and blue collar voters. He will go into the general election deeply distrusted by his own base while having to woo independent voters. This is not a dazzling position to be in to beat an incumbent president," writes Erickson.

"He won his home state of Michigan by less than 3 percent. He won Ohio barely after pouring in money. A win is a win is a win. But with each Romney win, he comes away even more badly bruised. The rest of March will be just as brutal. What a mess."

Others think Romney's weaknesses have been overblown. In her conservative Right Turn blog, Jennifer Rubin notes that Romney won Ohio, dubbed his "must-win" state, has won states in every region but the deep South, and has racked up far more delegates than any other candidate.

"It is only in a media environment in which so many pundits are rooting for the pummeling to continue in the GOP could this be characterized as 'failing to close the deal' or evidence of weakness by Romney," she wrote Wednesday.

Still, many conservative voters seem far from convinced.

One of the worst signs for Romney Tuesday actually came from a state that he won handily: Virginia.

Romney got 60 percent of the vote there, while Ron Paul got 40 percent.

The problem? Those were the only two names on the ballot, since Gingrich and Santorum didn't get enough signatures to qualify, and in 2008, Mr. Paul got just 4.5 percent of the Virginia vote. Since it's unlikely that so many Virginians suddenly switched over to Paul, that 40 percent can be more easily seen as a protest vote by Republicans who cared most about registering a vote against Romney – hardly a mark of enthusiasm from his party.

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