After he'd absorbed the reality of Super Tuesday, in early February 2008, former Gov. Mitt Romney concluded he had no path to the GOP presidential nomination. In the CPAC speech where he announced he was dropping out of the race, Romney cited the need for Republican unity in a time of war. The truth was, this "conservatives' conservative" (as he was introduced at the '08 CPAC) could not shake former Gov. Mike Huckabee on his right flank—especially in the all-important Southern states.
Sen. John McCain did not deliver a knockout punch to Mitt Romney on Super Tuesday. He needed Huckabee's help. Nevertheless, it was spun as a clear McCain victory in aggregate. Romney's summary departure and endorsement only intensified McCain's aura of inevitability.
After 2008's Super Tuesday, with Romney out, Huckabee (having won Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee) went on to defeat McCain in the Kansas caucuses and Louisiana primary. But these were token victories. It was widely understood that Huckabee would drop out once McCain reached the delegate threshold. The McCain campaign was politely letting Huckabee ride in its sidecar.
This was the position Romney hoped to be in after this year's Super Tuesday contests.
Romney is racking up delegates. In raw vote count, Romney leads Santorum by about one million. Romney is winning. Yet, just as important, he's not "winning." He seems simultaneously inevitable and locked in a dogfight. He's the front-runner who can't "close the deal."
The next round of primaries this month, in places like Mississippi and Alabama, won't help Romney and may further enliven former Speaker Newt Gingrich's campaign. He has a growing problem with working-class voters. His unfavorability trendline is pointing in the wrong direction.
All this serves to delay the possibility of a "reset"—that moment when Romney can unite the party and turn his attention to President Obama.
Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom recently put it this way:
When this primary is over and people have had their heads knocked in by one another, that's just the nature of a hard fought campaign ... We hit the reset button and the campaign begins anew with a different opponent. We'll be able to draw sharp contrasts with the president, and the president alone, not worrying about our competition. It will be a different race at that point, and the numbers will begin again.
This is true. But Romney desperately needs to reach that point sooner rather than later.