Another round of primaries is over and yet four candidates still remain in the hunt for the Republican presidential nomination. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney performed solidly on Tuesday, winning more delegates than any of his rivals – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. But they each scraped together enough support to justify continuing on.
It's a scenario that could play over and over again, all the way until the Texas primary on May 29, predicts one election observer.
"I think this is a political death march all the way to Texas," says Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant in Washington. "I find it highly unlikely that any of these guys are going to hang it up right after Super Tuesday, with the hope that maybe Romney implodes somehow or that they will be able to get enough delegates to negotiate with Romney as the front-runner some sort of place on the convention platform."
William Galston, former policy advisor to President Clinton and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says Romney's resources – both in money and campaign infrastructure – have finally set him on the path to victory after months of a chaotic GOP race.
"What we're seeing is a slow, inexorable tilt toward the candidate who is better funded, better organized, more capable of running a national campaign and of surviving a blow on any one day and continuing," Galston says. "He is broadly acceptable to three quarters of the Republican Party, even though there's a distinctive lack of enthusiasm. The outcome is inevitable. The only question is how long it takes."
It's not coincidental, Galston points out, that several top Republicans recently announced their support for Romney.
"It's clear that what's left of the leadership of the Republican Party wants this to begin to end," he says. "That's the only way for me to interpret what [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor did and Sen. Tom Coburn, who is nobody's idea of a squishy moderate, did in endorsing Romney. They can read the numbers as well as anybody else and they know that this process has not been useful to the party or to its presumptive nominee. So the sooner they can bring it to an end the better."
But the process will not be easy, as Tuesday's 10 diverse primaries failed to deliver a knock-out blow to any of the candidates.
Paul, a strong libertarian who doesn't fit comfortably in the Republican orthodoxy, will continue to campaign on a shoestring and enjoy grassroots support for as long as possible to keep his voice heard, Galston says.
And because Gingrich set the expectation of winning Georgia and no other states, he'll feel emboldened to keep campaigning based on meeting that lower expectation, Bonjean says.
Both Bonjean and Galston agree that it's likely Gingrich will stubbornly remain in the field until his generous benefactor, Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, decides to stop putting millions into the group spending money supporting Gingrich's candidacy.
Finally, there's Santorum, who was the least funded, lowest polling candidate in the race until his surprise win in the Iowa caucus.
"Santorum never expected he would get this far so it seems inconceivable that he would step aside. He has set a thematic of David vs. Goliath," Bonjean says.
Galston imagines a scenario where top Republicans gently try and convince Santorum, who is just 53, to be proud of what he's accomplished and step aside for the good of the party for now.
"I can imagine a sobered Santorum looking at reality and deciding that he's had his shot but he's up against a superior force like General Lee against General Grant and that he understands if he keeps going he will just be ground and ground down until finally there's nothing left of him," Galston says.
Bonjean says the party leadership is eager to focus on the target of beating President Obama.
"They will try to force the other candidates to re-think their position so they can start preparing the attacks to go against Obama," he says.