If this year's competition for the Republican presidential nomination were a real horserace rather than a figurative one, Mitt Romneywould be rounding the backstretch and heading for home. Only if he suffers the political equivalent of throwing a shoe or breaking a leg in the homestretch is he likely now to lose the race.
The three remaining walking wounded -- Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul -- all avow their intentions to keep competing all the way to the convention in Tampa. They may be motivated by ego (as in Mr. Gingrich's case), movement building (as in Mr. Paul's), or (as in Mr. Santorum's) the hope of inheriting the mantle of Mr. Conservative.
All three may still cling to the unlikely prospect that together they can siphon off enough delegate support in the remaining state contests to keep Mr. Romney from reaching the magic number of 1,144 votes required to be nominated. They may still dream of a replay of the brokered conventions of 1920 that gave Gov. James M. Cox of Ohio the Democratic nomination on the 44th ballot and Sen. Warren G. Harding of the same state the Republican on the 10th roll call in the storied smoke-filled-room coup.
That dream is theoretically still possible, but it runs against the party's growing desire to get on with recovering from the wounds incurred in the fierce primary season, and on to the task of beating President Barack Obama in the fall. There's little evidence that party conservatives' coolness toward Mr. Romney has waned, but the sense that his nomination is inevitable may suffice.
Mr. Santorum now says the April 24 primary in his home base of Pennsylvania is a must-win for him, but in his last statewide election there, in 2006, he was driven from the Senate by an emphatic 18-point margin. Winning there will insure that he will continue in the race, but after his surprising run so far, even if he loses it would be entirely understandable if he decided to go on into the convention after all.
In the case of Mr. Gingrich, his appearance there at age 69 is likely to be a nagging sayonara. But for Mr. Santorum, at age 54, it could be a vision of things to come for the pure conservatives disappointed at Mr. Romney's nomination and doubting his ability to beat Mr. Obama.
As for the contention that Mr. Santorum will damage himself in the party by pressing on into the convention rather than accepting the apparent inevitability of Mr. Romney's nomination, who will hold it against him? Not, certainly, the conservatives who believe the choice of Mr. Romney will be a ticket to defeat in November.
Strangely, no pressure whatsoever is being exerted on Ron Paul to pull out of the race, despite the stronger evidence that, with his narrow if vocal constituency, he has no chance of being nominated. It is generally acknowledged that his real objective is to give libertarianism a toehold in the GOP that someday, somehow may grow to greater influence.
Mr. Santorum, however, has managed through this primary campaign to establish himself more than anyone else in the field as the voice of the tea party, religious evangelists and working stiffs, filling a void that existed before the campaign began. And he has done it on a shoestring, from driving a truck and going door-to-door in Iowa to today's full-bore operation, although it is clearly not on the scale of Mr. Romney's.
Furthermore, there may be a public misconception about the so-called ordeal of running for president. The travel is heavy and the hours are long, but the candidate is buoyed by the attention and even adoration he or she receives in the spotlight. And campaigning by jet plane and being waited on hand and foot today is a far cry from the slogging by train or bus that really made it an ordeal in years gone by.
So while Mr. Romney appears to be breezing comfortably toward the finish line right now, Mr. Santorum trotting behind is en route to finishing second. If Mr. Romney should lose in November, as so many of the party's "true" conservatives believe, Mr. Santorum could be positioned to be their winter-book favorite for 2016.
Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.