The Reckoning

High Noon at the Keystone Corral

His strong faith notwithstanding, Rick Santorum’s not taking any chances in Pennsylvania.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

And so the showdown at the Keystone Corral is set. April 24, high noon, on Main Street in Punxsutawney, Pa. The unenthusiastically embraced front-runner, the Utah Kid, doesn’t shoot often, but he has friends who own defense firms and is armed with a gold-plated replica of the .54 caliber dueling pistol that killed Alexander Hamilton.

His opponent, Rick “Just a Working Guy” Santorum, hopes to survive the battle with an appeal the hometown crowd, his apostolic faith in God, and a Kevlar-coated sweater vest.

Interestingly, the April 24 Pennsylvania primary—breathlessly previewed by the New York Times today in the wake of Romney’s unsurprising victories in Wisconsin, Maryland, and D.C.—is shaping up as Santorum’s fight to lose, a make-or-break moment in the far-right campaign to prevent the relatively sane Romney from claiming the GOP standard.

Quinnipiac has Santorum up 6 points in the state, but I suspect his support among rural Pennsylvanians and the white working class is as solid as the anthracite and bituminous veins that support the state’s mountains.

Almost as much has been written about Pennsylvania as the quintessential 21st century “swing state” as about Ohio to the west. In a general election, Philadelphia and its suburbs, the northeastern reaches of ex-urban New York, and the high tech/liberal corridors around Pittsburgh and the state’s many college towns put it in play for the blue team. But during a Republican primary, the state’s throwback mix of rural blue collar Catholics, Mennonites, Shakers, and other stoic religious sects, plus conservative industrialists, will bleed as blue as the Virgin Mary’s dress.

If I’m right, then Romney is finished. Yes, yes, he’ll win the GOP nomination eventually. But longer term, this bodes ill for him.

Ironically, April should have been a great month for the man from Bain Capital. But between Santorum’s stubborn unwillingness to die (supernatural?) and the front-runner’s frequent “one-percenter moments,” the coup d’grace has never happened.

Contrary to the Romney campaign’s protestations of inevitability, the math looks grim. To date he has won a bit over half the 1,144 delegates needed to guarantee his nomination at the summer convention—and the addition of Wisconsin (42), Maryland (37), and the District of Columbia (12) didn’t hurt. There’s no way in the divinely engineered, unquestionably infallible U.S. electoral system to know for sure, but most experts think Romney now has about 634 delegates. 

For Romney, however, the good news ends there. His campaign takes for granted that he’ll win the moderate states up for grabs on April 24: New York (95), Connecticut (28), Rhode Island (19), and Delaware (17).

But Santorum is popular in Pennsylvania, and in neighboring Delaware, too. (Who knows what havoc a little visit from Smokin’ Joe Biden, the pride of Scranton, Pa., and Delaware’s senator since the glaciers receded, could wreak?)

Nothing, again, is inevitable.

Should Romney fail to take Pennsylvania, he is mathematically doomed to continue campaigning without the necessary delegates to clinch until at least late May. Between now and May 29, when Texas and its 155 votes are contested, Romney could win every state except Pennsylvania and still be 50 votes short. And guess what? Santorum is leading most of the polls in Texas, which, of all the very large states, is the most likely to vote its soul rather than its head.

This is not to say Romney is likely to lose the primary season to Santorum. Even without Texas, Romney should ultimately limp into the convention with enough delegates to win the party’s nomination—the likely scenario being that he’ll be put over the finish line on June 5 by California’s 172 delegates.

But at what cost? Three more months of plutocratic gaffes will seriously damage his image among the voters who ultimately matter more: the “independent” voters who tilt one way or another and are decisive in U.S. presidential elections.

In the general election, Romney’s ability to pull independent voters away from the Obama camp is now in serious question as he is forced by Santorum to keep his hands off the Etch A Sketch.* Polls today show Obama leading anywhere between 1 and 11 percent. Those numbers mean little at this point, as the great mass of American voters still haven’t focused on the burden of exercising their franchise just yet.

But Obama has to be feeling pretty good given the near-prostrate state of the U.S. economy for most of his term—and his still-inexplicable inability to explain clearly that the entire mess was handed to him by his Republican predecessor.

Today, with macro trends continuing to improve, signs of desperation on the right are clear. One example is the campaign to portraying the president as the main culprit for rising petrol prices. Intellectual dishonesty about what moves energy markets aside, the GOP candidates appear to hope that by putting down this marker, they may reap an electoral benefit if a) frictions between Israel and Iran erupt in conflict, or b) if Saudi Arabia proves unable to make good on its promises to replace Iranian oil subject to ever-tightening embargos, including an EU deadline on July 1.

The problem with this logic is that, even in the event of an attack, much of the “spike” has been priced into markets already, and the ability of Iran to disrupt oil’s movement through the Straits of Hormuz is wildly exaggerated.

The GOP has another wild card up its sleeve, of course: the fate of Obama’s health care reform law. The Romney campaign’s spin between now and the June decision will be that any move by the court to knock the law down will just show that Obama’s was an illegitimate presidency bent on the imposition of socialism on a liberty-loving populace.

That’s the Republican pipe dream, at least. To me, the results of the court striking the law down, either in part or whole, will simply blow back on Romney, who, after all, designed and implemented the prototype himself in Massachusetts.

More to the point, a judicial evisceration of health care will enrage the American left, which has been somewhat subdued by the realization that Obama cannot, in fact, walk on water and has had the temerity to be rational rather than ideological on more than one occasion.

A vote against health care on the court remobilizes the 2008 Obama coalition once more. And thus does hope spring eternal—at least for Democrats.

And so, back to Punxsutawney and thousands of small Pennsylvania towns like it. Can Romney finally write “RIP” over Santorum? Or will he just wing him again, shooting from the hip in spite of his advantage in arms, money, and (it must be said) brains?

I’m no groundhog, but I see more winter ahead for Mitt. See ya in Texas, partner.

*Correction, April 5, 2012: This blog post originally referred to “Romney’s ability to pull independent voters away from the Romney camp.” The candidate is trying to pull independent votes from the Obama camp.