Mitt the inevitable

One can hardly blame Mitt Romney and his supporters for suggesting that it's time for his GOP opponents to step aside. Although his victories on Super Tuesday were not as decisive as he might have liked, with about half the delegates committed so far the former Massachusetts governor remains very, very tough to beat for the Republican nomination.

He may not set tea party hearts aflutter, but cold, hard numbers remain on Mr. Romney's side even if, as expected, he continues to face losses in some states ahead. The road looks particularly hard in the short term as Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and caucuses in Hawaii may offer the candidate no better than a second-place finish.

Same with Louisiana on March 24. Indeed, his only victory for the rest of this month may be in Illinois on March 20 — followed by Maryland and the District of Columbia two weeks later. If he can parlay that momentum into a victory over Rick Santorum in Mr. Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, he may finally have the overwhelming political advantage (if not necessarily in the delegate count) he needs to claim victory.

Political junkies can always find holes in this scenario. Mr. Romney is bound to suffer more embarrassing losses along the road to Tampa, particularly in states where evangelical voters hold sway. But, as his staff has made clear, it would take a miracle to stop him from eventually capturing the nomination and facing Barack Obama in the fall, based on the delegates he's already amassed and those he's likely to capture between now and June 5.

Democrats are clearly enjoying the essential conundrum facing the GOP candidates and their supporters: Conservatives aren't wild about Mr. Romney, but the alternatives appear so flawed and their campaigns so disorganized and underfunded (as in Ohio, Mr. Santorum will not field a full slate of delegates in Illinois) that it's hard to see much benefit from this prolonged fighting — except for the incumbent.

At what point might Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Mr. Santorum concede for the good of the party? They may wait until it's all over in June and Mr. Romney has the magic 1,144 votes at the convention, a choice that could easily leave the GOP nominee so damaged as to make the general election moot.

We would never begrudge Republican voters the opportunity to vote for whom they like. Rarely has Maryland's GOP faced such a chance to have legitimate influence over the party's choice for president. But we also sense among these same voters a strong sense of disappointment — over the weakness of their choices, Mr. Obama's rising chances for re-election, and the poisonous nature of this year's Republican primary that has strayed so far from reality.

Some have likened the primary to 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan took their battle all the way to the GOP convention. The fight left the nominated President Ford weakened, and he subsequently lost to Jimmy Carter in the general election. But the episode also empowered conservatives who would eventually put Mr. Reagan in the White House and Republican majorities in Congress.

But that was a far different era for a party that has moved to the right of Mr. Reagan and even Barry Goldwater before him. What has hurt Mr. Romney far more than his wealth, his flubs or his stiff personality is simply the taint of moderation and compromise in his past.

The candidates must know intellectually that they are brick-by-brick stacking up so many negatives on Mr. Romney that he might be buried in November. Yet they can't help themselves. They are unable to find common ground among themselves, just as they can't negotiate with the Democrats in Washington on matters of supreme importance.

This is not the party of "Morning in America"; it's one of anger and disaffection. They are ready to cut off their noses to spite their faces — and perhaps set their hair on fire — if it will move them up the polls for a news cycle or two.

One might be tempted to lay blame for all this on the party's nominating process, with its mixture of elections and caucuses, winner-take-alls and proportionals, that are complicated and confusing. Or perhaps on an electorate so fickle that it changes preferences in a flash. But perhaps more alarmingly, it also speaks to the character of the men running for office: their egos, their obstinacy and their inability to see beyond their self-interest.

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