CHATTANOOGA, Tenn.—Tuesday marks a new stage in the Republican presidential nomination race – one that rewards money, strategy and organization. It's on these counts that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is hoping to assert himself, if not in pure wins in all 10 states set to vote, then in both the number of delegates and in the hearts and minds of his opponents. Ultimately, the candidate who first reaches the magic number of 1,144 delegates becomes the party's nominee, and Tuesday's results could finally begin the domino effect the Romney campaign has been waiting for.
While Texas Rep. Ron Paul has invested his somewhat limited resources into the caucus states of Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota, even if he notches his first statewide victory – not at all assured – he still has focused on states with the least reward.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - whose campaign would have been dead for weeks if not for the charity of Las Vegas benefactor Sheldon Adelson - has staked his claim in his home state of Georgia. On the plus side for Gingrich, it's the state with the most delegates at stake (76), and recent polls show him well in the lead. But for a candidate who has trailed badly in every state he's competed in since his Jan. 21 victory in South Carolina, it's hard to see how this isn't the end of the line for his campaign. Simply put, Gingrich is likely to become irrelevant after Georgians vote. That's not to say he might not be able to pick off delegates in Southern states who have yet to vote, but there's simply no way he can win enough to catch Romney.
That leaves only Rick Santorum in Romney's way. If Santorum had been able to defeat Romney in Michigan last week, it would have been a serious blow to Romney's front-runner status, who billed Michigan as his home state. But Santorum fell short and lost the momentum he gained from sweeping three states in February. And though Santorum thrived in Iowa, which rewarded his dogged county-by-county handshaking effort, the opposite approach is needed to win on a day that 10 states are voting. Particularly when through a lack of organization and money Santorum's name will not appear on the Virginia ballot and a handful of congressional districts in Ohio.
The Buckeye State is where Santorum's campaign will indeed have its make or break moment. While he may eke out victories in Oklahoma and Tennessee, if he cannot defeat Romney in Ohio's somewhat favorable blue-collar, evangelical territory, no one in the GOP will be convinced he is a better option for defeating President Obama than Romney.
The real problem for Santorum is that Romney has been building his infrastructure in Ohio for months. He's had his volunteers signed up, his phone banks buzzing and his key voting blocks identified. These tactical advantages can be negated by grassroots support and sheer excitement, but there's no real evidence of those factors occurring for Santorum. Romney and the Super PAC spending money on his behalf have also been spending heavily on advertising painting Santorum as a Washington insider and a big spender. All this adds up to Santorum failing to secure enough delegates to threaten him becoming the nominee.
And for his part, Romney is already virtually guaranteed nothing but pleasant surprises once the dust settles Tuesday night. He is a virtual lock to win Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as Virginia, where his only competition is Paul.
Thanks to his money advantage and infrastructure, he's likely to do as well as anyone in the caucus states. And because of how the delegates are apportioned in places like Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee, he does not actually need victories to add to his count.
So while a narrow loss to Santorum would be yet another humbling moment, all Romney truly needs is to continue plodding along. Because after Super Tuesday, the race likely will amount to a slow death march for all his opponents.