With a big block of GOP delegates up for grabs in 10 states Tuesday, the media meme of the moment is that the race has, at long last, reached a tipping point. The Times' front page on Monday declared, "GOP ready for this fight to end." The other Times proclaimed, "Before Super Tuesday, Big Names Rally to Romney." Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee pronounced on Fox News, "The momentum is with Romney.... [P]eople are saying, 'OK, look, if he's going to win, let's go ahead and get behind him.'"
The "big names" cited by the New York Times include House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whose state's primary is almost certain to be won by Romney. That's because only Romney and Cantor's Libertarian-minded colleague, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), are on the ballot. Nevertheless, Cantor's support is significant because of his standing among tea party voters, a group that Romney has yet to impress.
And maybe we have, in fact, arrived at the point where Romney separates himself from the pack. Tracking polls show his popularity reaching new heights as rival Rick Santorum becomes the latest anti-Mitt to fade. If Romney wins in Ohio and Tennessee, where blue-collar and conservative Christian voters had given Santorum a sizable edge just a few weeks ago, along with Virginia, his home state of Massachusetts, neighboring Vermont and Mormon-rich Idaho, he'll have strung together victories on an impressive range of playing fields.
But the commentariat has be wrong repeatedly about this race. Remember when it was suddenly a two-man race between Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry? Then a two-man race between Romney and Newt Gingrich? Remember when the Florida primary was supposed to wrap things up for Romney once and for all?
It's something of a formula in political journalism: anoint a favorite, then continue writing about the front-runner's nomination as an "inevitability" until it finally comes true.
Romney is a cinch to claim a lot of delegates in Tuesday's primaries, thanks in large part to Santorum's failure to get on the ballot in Virginia and to file all the necessary paperwork in Ohio. What's at stake Tuesday isn't delegates, though, it's perceived momentum. That's why voters and donors may continue rallying to Santorum if he wins in Oklahoma, as expected, and Tennessee and Ohio, where the races are tight.
For Gingrich, the hurdle is higher. He's likely to win big in his home state of Georgia, but such victories don't usually mean much in national campaigns. He's not expected to win anywhere else, but if he can outpoll Romney or Santorum to finish second in Oklahoma and Tennessee, maybe he can continue to argue credibly that the race will be settled at the Republican convention in August.
As for Paul, I can't offer even a credibility-straining argument that the Texas Republican could somehow win the nomination. But I'm sure his supporters will do so in the comments section below. One admonition before you start typing, folks: It's not why he should win, but why he could.
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Mitt Romney campaigns in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday. Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images