ROMNEY THE WINNER? NOT YET!

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- Now that Mitt Romney has about wrapped up the Republican nomination for president ... What? He hasn't? They changed the rules?

The Republican Party, which did indeed change its nomination rules and has had to try to deal with new campaign finance circumstances, is a classic example of being careful what you ask for -- or is it unintended consequences? By the old rules, Romney would be a lock. Now, he will still probably win, but the party may be the focus of weeks or months more of the ugliness many of us have enjoyed watching through these past months.

Four years ago this week, after losing a handful of "Super Tuesday" primaries won by Sen. John McCain, Romney and others dropped out of the Republican primary race. The former Massachusetts governor had run respectably, won several primaries and caucuses and spent $40 million of his own money. No matter what happened next, McCain had the press, the money, the momentum and the delegates to virtually ensure nomination.

The powers that be in the GOP, nationally and locally, decided then that the early victory deprived them of public attention as the press and nation turned to the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Republicans were lost in the excitement.

The party decided to do something about it and did. The most important changes were to slow down delegate selection in important states and move the Republican "Super Tuesday" to March. It worked. Romney has dominated, but there are enough contests and candidates to keep it interesting -- to say the least.

Then came the other "Supers" -- Super PACs -- basically removing limits on campaign contributions by both individuals and corporations. Under the old rules, nomination fields were cleared by lack of "momentum," a euphemism for not being able to raise money or press coverage after losing an important primary or two. Under those rules, Rick Santorum would be out of the race, Newt Gingrich would be broke and crippled, leaving Romney running against only Rep. Ron Paul and his libertarian snake oil.

So the race slogs on. There will be delegate-selection primaries in only two states, Michigan and Arizona, on Feb. 28, which will settle nothing, leading up to the new Super Tuesday of March 6.

The four remaining candidates will have the option of lying low or savaging each other, which they have been doing. That is not exactly what the party had in mind.

The situation has been complicated by Romney's obvious weaknesses as a candidate. He is not only disliked and distrusted by the heavy right of the party, as a candidate he has seemed like one of those life-sized cardboard cutouts you get your picture taken with outside the White House. What happens to him if it rains?

That party split, and the feeling by many conservatives that Romney would be a weak candidate against Obama, is part of what keeps this race stumbling along. Gingrich and Santorum are playing a tiny game of musical chairs, hoping to be the one sitting next to Romney if the music stops. Both, particularly Gingrich, rather unreasonably believe there is still a path to victory for them. Each of them, I suppose, believes he can reactivate the tea party -- remember them? -- as Romney looks like he's in the wrong business and would like to get back to corporate takeovers and firing people.

The right-wingers, more populist than usual, do have a point. What will the Democrats and all their campaign money have to say and do with a man who has said he's "not concerned about the very poor," or that "corporations are people." (My favorite retort to the latter was the guy who wrote to The New York Times asking if they knew whether General Electric had a single sister.)

Romney's ringers -- "Don't try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit bottom" -- are not always illogical; they are just not political. He has, as they say, a tin ear, not an advantage against a demagogue like Gingrich.

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