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Romney wins again, but is it over?

Even after Mitt Romney’s solid win in Illinois, the punditocracy is understandably reluctant to make pronouncements that it’s over.

Romney supporters cheering and waving signs

“Evitable” is actually a word, although you never hear it. It means “capable of being avoided.”

“Inevitable” is the word you hear all the time, especially recently with reference to the candidacy of Mitt Romney. Long ago, it seems, Romney was locked into a box where the essential argument for his nomination was that it was incapable of being avoided. This is not exactly an exciting or a positive argument, but – faced with the week in-week out proof that more than half of the Republican electorate wishes they could find someone else about whom they get more excited – Team Romney is making the resistance-is-futile inevitability argument work. You can take him easy or you can take him hard. But largely because there is no one left in the field — and basically there has never been anyone else in the incredibly weak field of challengers – who can take Romney out, you are, in the end, going to have to take him.

Even after Tuesday’s very solid Romney win in Illinois, the punditocracy is reluctant to make big pronouncements that it’s over. And I can understand why. Almost everyone who has been dumb enough to try to get ahead of this race has looked foolish on a couple of Wednesday mornings.

So we’re getting a lot of exquisitely hedged it’s-almost-over-but-not-quite analysis pieces this morning like this one from NBC’s “First Read” team, headlined “Romney holds his ground”:

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“It wasn’t a blowout win or a knockout punch, but Mitt Romney’s 12-point victory in Illinois (and his even more decisive delegate haul) was exactly what he needed to do to keep his grasp on the GOP nomination. As for Rick Santorum, it was an expected loss and he kept the primary competitive despite being greatly outspent and out-organized, but it’s now more and more difficult to see how he could capture the nomination. Despite what some are saying, however, the race isn’t over — at least not yet: The GOP primary contest moves on to Louisiana, where Santorum is favored.”

Romney speech

I watched Romney’s victory speech (and you can, too, here, if you have 20 minutes). There were a lot of new lines, although the themes were beyond familiar. He speaks graciously (although in this case briefly and without mentioning their names) of his Repub rivals whom his SuperPAC has just finished savaging with attack ads (over which, by law, Romney has no control and therefore bears no responsibility). Then he segues quickly into mocking and blaming President Obama, mostly for never having been a businessman.

Repub bigfoot Bill Kristol was surprisingly harsh on the speech (while parenthetically weighing in against the inevitability meme), thus:

“Watching Mitt Romney’s victory speech in Illinois didn’t reassure me about his chances against President Obama. Romney’s remarks consisted basically of the claim that the business of America is business, that he’s a businessman who understands business, and that we need ‘economic freedom’ not for the sake of freedom but to allow business to fuel the economy. It’s true that Romney will have plenty of time to improve for the general election, if, as seems likely [but still not inevitable!], he wins the nomination. But if he sticks with this core message, we’d better hope Republicans and independents are really determined to get rid of Barack Obama.“

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But I was more surprised, or impressed, with this morning’s post from Erick Erickson of the pro-Repub “RedState” blog. Erickson has become a regular on CNN and has made clear his deep reluctance to accept Romney or bow to the inevitability logic. This morning’s post is headlined “The Nominee.” The subhead says: “He Beat the Base; Now will the Base be with him.” It includes this five-word sentence:

“He will be the nominee.” Followed by this bitter analysis:

Theoretically, Rick Santorum could keep Romney from getting to 1,144. But as Romney piles up more and more wins and neither the Gingrich nor Paul campaigns remain factors, let alone have pulses, the inevitable will set in. Conservatives may not really like Mitt Romney, but they do not want a fractured party too divided to beat Barack Obama. There will be no white knight, no dark horse, and no brokered convention. We have our nominee.

If, come November, Mitt Romney wins, he will owe it to a lot of Republicans who put their reputation on the line and it will be payback time. If Mitt Romney loses, party leaders will undoubtedly try to blame conservatives as they always do, but it will be really hard to cast blame when Romney’s supporters have billed him as Mr. Electable since shortly after they they billed Harriet Miers as a genius conservative pick for the Supreme Court.

Either way, conservatives have and no doubt will continue to make it very clear that Mitt Romney may be the standard bearer of the Republican Party, but he most definitely is not the standard bearer of the conservative movement. The disentangling of the movement from the party will continue. So too will our shared effort to oust Barack Obama from the White House.

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The Santorum factor

What about Santorum?

Rick Santorum pledges to fight on, but bear in mind that every candidate promises to stay in to the end just before they announce that they are dropping out. (Our own Michele Bachmann announced on the Tuesday night of the Iowa caucuses that she was staying in and dropped out on Wednesday morning.)

If Santorum stays until Louisiana, he will likely win there. And nothing that happens from here out can take away Santorum’s truly amazing rise from the back of the pack to the last remaining credible challenger.

But last night, Santorum didn’t outperform the late polls as he has usually done. Instead, he underperformed them. Romney’s vote total easily bested the combined total of Santorum and Newt Gingrich, so the idea that Santorum could win if Gingrich would get out of the way takes a hit.  Santorum’s strength remains confined to the same demographics every time and he can’t seem to add to those pockets of support.

In his own primary night statement said that he was proud that he was still winning in the areas where Republicans predominate. There’s something wrong with this argument, just as there was something wrong with the argument last week that Romney’s weakness in Alabama and Mississippi were a problem for him. If any Republican is to beat Obama, it will not be by carrying Alabama or Mississippi or the regions of Illinois where Republicans predominate. It will be by winning in the suburbs, which is where Romney is strong.

Santorum has recently been reduced to calling for a ban on the use of TelePrompters by presidential candidates. I can’t tell if he’s kidding, but if he is, he forgot to make it funny.

I’m out of time and space and can’t think of anything worth saying about the remaining chances of Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul.