What were once murmurs about a late entry by a candidate into the Republican presidential primary or a potential convention fight for the nomination have become a topic of open speculation in the GOP, reflecting concerns about the party’s existing crop of competitors.
Odds remain heavily stacked against the party arriving at its convention without a nominee, but the remaining candidates face lingering doubts about their strength versus President Barack Obama ... and that's fueling discussion that some kind of “knight in shining armor” could, or should, ride in to “save” the GOP at the last moment.
Mitt Romney in particular is facing fresh doubts about his ability to take the reins in the Republican primary after failing to win several recent caucus contests. Now Romney appears to be at risk of losing next Tuesday’s primary in his native Michigan to Rick Santorum.
Romney has failed to seal the deal in a series of key primaries and caucuses over the month and a half, struggling to win over skeptical conservatives. Santorum, in turn, has rallied those conservatives to score victories which stymied Romney’s momentum, but did nothing to quell doubts about the former Pennsylvania senator’s ability to square off against Obama in November.
The speculation -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s endorsed Romney, acknowledged Wednesday that he’s still facing pressure to wage his own campaign -- may well reach a fever pitch after Super Tuesday on March 6.
If the race between Romney, Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul remains stalemated and no single candidate is able to amass the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination, talk will grow louder about a once-unthinkable possibility: a contested, or brokered, convention and the potential for a new candidate to be added to the mix.
"Anything's possible. I think it's unlikely," Romney said earlier this month on FOX News, addressing the possibility of a contested convention.
"I must say I'd be a little surprised if we went all the way to August or September until we had a nominee. That would be unusual. Is it mathematically possible? Yeah, but usually one or the other candidates runs out of money, runs out of support, and someone else is able to garner the delegates needed for the nomination," Romney said.
Gingrich, who’s vowed to fight all the way to the convention, was more sanguine Wednesday morning on FOX News: “I think it may go all the way to Tampa. I think this may be the most open nominating process we've seen since 1940.”
Such scenarios are, in part, the continuation of the dominant campaign story line from 2011, when Republican activists fiercely courted other candidates to join the race.
A number of Republicans to whom conservatives had looked ended up skipping the race; governors like Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana declined running. Only Texas Gov. Rick Perry fell victim to the swan song of dissatisfied Republicans, and made in August what was then considered a “late” entry into the campaign.
And even Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Christie reconsidered their opposition to running in response to Republican entreaties last fall.
NBC News projections have allocated 138 total delegates between Romney, Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul as a result of the first nine primaries. Fifty-nine delegates are at stake in next week’s Arizona and Michigan primaries, with 43 up for grabs in March 3’s Washington caucus. A whopping 437 delegates are at stake on Super Tuesday, on which 10 states host caucuses or primaries.
Continuing on into March, though, rule changes from the Republican National Committee mean that a number of the primaries and contests that allotted its delegates on a winner-take-all basis in 2008 are now forced to award delegates proportionally -- in some cases, as long as no candidate clears 50 percent -- in 2012. Many of these contests are back-loaded in the primary calendar this spring, making it more difficult for any candidate to amass a major lead in the delegate count.
A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination, making a late entry difficult but certainly not implausible with big states which offer large shares of delegates yet to vote. The filing deadlines for most states have passed, though a candidate could conceivably enter and play to win a large contest like California. Those primaries and caucuses wouldn't give a candidate enough delegates to win the nomination, but he or she might carry momentum into a brokered convention.
The notion that Romney has even addressed such scenarios, however unlikely they may be, highlights the difficulties he’s facing in winning over conservatives. That breakdown is reflected in Wednesday’s NBC News/Marist polls, in which Santorum leads Romney among voters in Arizona and Michigan who describe themselves as “very conservative.”
If he loses next Tuesday in Michigan to Santorum, talk about finding a new candidate -- either through a late primary entry or a brokered convention -- is poised to reach a fever pitch.
“We have a great field though, as it stands, and we are going to see how this process evolves and if it if ends up as a brokered convention at the end of the day, well that would be a really exciting time for all,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, told reporters earlier this month at the annual CPAC conference. (She said Tuesday evening on FOX News that Republicans shouldn’t fear a contested convention, though she expressed doubt that party leaders would turn to her in case of a stalemate.)
“If that’s what happens, that’s fine,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative darling, told a Florida Fox affiliate earlier this month. Rubio, a favorite choice as a running mate for the eventual GOP nominee, said he still saw such a scenario as unlikely.
But a brokered convention remains more a fantasy of political journalists at this point than a realistic scenario. A virtual perfect storm of variables would have to fall into place for none of the four remaining Republican candidates to have won enough delegates to secure the nomination by late August.
And the bench of remaining Republican candidates is scant; a number of onetime GOP hopefuls have ruled out running, and would have to reverse their stance. There are also very few unifying national figures right now in the GOP who could rally the whole party behind their candidacy. And any candidate to make a late entry or win nomination at the convention would face major logistical and fundraising hurdles trying to quickly bring a national campaign online.
“I just don't see that happening,” Daniels said Tuesday on the Fox Business Network about his willingness to reconsider. “And I can't say often enough that this is just not an obsession or personal ambition of mine.”
Moreover, the existing crop of candidates is primed to carry the fight all the way to the convention. Gingrich might have been forced to end his campaign for lack of finances in a more conventional cycle, but a super PAC funded primarily by billionaire Sheldon Adelson may help the ex-speaker follow through with his vow to fight all the way to the convention.
And Romney advisers have consistently said they have been working on a strategy aimed at winning the necessary number of delegates to secure the nomination -- a type of long-game strategy that could advantage the former Massachusetts governor.
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