With three states voting, a last shot for Rick Santorum

The Takeaway

Voters in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are at the polls Tuesday, choosing which among the remaining Republican presidential contenders they would like to represent their party against Barack Obama in the November elections.

But the results of those three contests, especially the results in Wisconsin, could be a turning point in the election. If Mitt Romney wins the Badger State, his lead in terms of electoral votes may become so insurmountable that his nomination will achieve what it has so long sought: inevitability. A victory for Rick Santorum will most likely give the former Senator from Pennsylvania the support he needs to stage a last stand in his home state, three weeks from now.

According to the latest average of polls from RealClearPolitics.com, Romney has a commanding lead in Wisconsin, 7.5 points over Santorum. The most recent two weeks’ polls all show Romney with a between five and 10 point lead. The polls show Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich between 20 and 30 points behind Romney.

But even if Romney wins Wisconsin, it might not be enough to force Santorum from the race. Technically, it will take Romney into June to accumulate enough delegates to actually guarantee his nomination — and Santorum could fight him ever step of the way.

Takeaway Washington correspondent Todd Zwillich said Santorum is likely mathematically eliminated from winning outright, but Santorum says he’s playing for the brokered convention — one in which Romney doesn’t have enough delegates to win on the fist ballot and someone else, Santorum perhaps, can win as delegates are traded around.

Zwillich said there’s another reason Santorum is staying in as well.

“Rick Santorum is getting the unequivocal, inarguable position of second place,” he explained. “Why is that important?”

That’s because, Zwillich said, there’s a long tradition by Republicans of them nominating during the next election the candidate who came in second the election cycle before.

“There’s another aspect to this, too. Conservatives in the Republican Party didn’t like the fact that John McCain was nominated against Barack Obama. They thought he was a moderate; they wanted a conservative. They’re upset about the exact same thing this year. Why are nominating a moderate instead of a real conservative,” Zwillich said.

If Romney were to lose to Obama in November, conservatives would make a loud case to nominate a more pure conservative — like Santorum, Zwillich said.

Republican political strategist Ron Christie echoed that sentiment.

“I think Santorum is only staying in this for his future viability,” Christie said. “He knows he can’t win. He knows he can’t get the delegate math…He’s saying, ‘I’m going to stick around. If Romney implodes, somehow, then we can get to the convention and I can say I’m the person you need to nominate.’ “

Christie said Santorum staying in the race also serves as a balance against Romney moving more toward the center in a general election campaign.

Romney is walking a tightrope, Christie said, between showing enough independence to secure swing voters in the general election, while trying to ward off criticism from Gingrich and Santorum that he’s not conservative enough.

“He’s trying to have that middle path and  it’s difficult for him right now, but I think, should he secure the nomination, he will tack to his left and he will try to appeal to a broader constituency than he is now,” Christie said.

Zwillich said Romney will have to move to the left, but he still hasn’t locked up the entire Republican base, which makes that difficult. Of the 285 Republicans in Congress, Romney has been endorsed by just 92.

“You’d think it would be a lot more,” Zwillich said. “92 out of 285 is remarkably low from elected officials at this point in the electoral process.”

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