How Gingrich's Candidacy Could Help Santorum

How Gingrich's Candidacy Could Help Santorum

By Scott Conroy - March 15, 2012

When Mitt Romney walked into the West Virginia Republican delegate convention on Feb. 5, 2008, he had every reason to believe that he was about to notch a key Super Tuesday victory that would help spark his candidacy.

The Romney campaign had been laying the groundwork in West Virginia for a year-and-a-half, while John McCain and Mike Huckabee barely had a footprint in the state. West Virginia's system that year awarded 18 of its convention delegates based on the results of a vote taken by 1,207 county delegates who had gathered that day in a giant ballroom in Charleston.

This rule placing delegate allocation in the hands of party regulars, rather than voters, was assumed to be a major asset for the well-organized Romney. But the system ended up being his downfall.

After Romney fell just short of the 50 percent threshold required to win on the first ballot, McCain’s and Ron Paul’s forces defected en masse to Huckabee on the second ballot, propelling the former Arkansas governor to just over 50 percent of the vote -- and a win. Romney dropped out of the race two days later.

The former Massachusetts governor’s unpleasant experience in the Mountain State serves as a reminder that if he fails to secure the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination on the first ballot of the 2012 Republican National Convention, all bets may be off.

By any measure, Romney remains the favorite to clinch the nomination before heading to Tampa in late August. He has won over 50 percent of the delegates awarded thus far, and the electoral terrain ahead appears to favor him.

As his campaign alluded in a memo last week, Romney is expected to win all of the delegates in the four remaining winner-take-all contests: Utah, New Jersey, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., and he appears strong in delegate-rich California and New York, where voters have yet to weigh in.

But as the nominating fight shifts this week to Puerto Rico and Louisiana, Rick Santorum is aiming to build on his Deep South victories to notch two upset wins in contests that could shift momentum inarguably to his side and make the prospect of Romney falling short of 1,144 delegates more plausible.

Although he has been losing the Catholic vote to Romney, Santorum may benefit Sunday from the faith he shares with 85 percent of Puerto Rico’s population, and on Tuesday, he will aim to rack up big margins in the largely rural middle and southern swaths of Illinois, putting himself in position to give Romney a run for his money in that state.

Further down the line, early polls show Santorum ahead in his home state of Pennsylvania and also in Texas -- the GOP’s second-largest delegate prize.

But Romney’s financial and organizational strength and early delegate advantage mean that Santorum will likely need something else to keep the race competitive down the stretch, and Gingrich may be just that wild card.

Despite his disappointing second-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday and increasing calls in conservative circles for him to drop out of the race to create an easier path for Santorum, Gingrich’s continued presence in the campaign may be the only way that Romney can be denied the 1,144 delegates he needs to lock it up.

If Gingrich were to drop out, various polls show that Santorum would garner the majority of the former speaker’s support. Nonetheless, in a two-man race with Romney, the math is more difficult for Santorum, not less. Romney figures to win enough of the delegates Gingrich otherwise would have taken to prevent Santorum from overtaking him.

But by remaining a candidate -- even one who has almost no chance of accumulating enough delegates to win on the first ballot at the convention -- Gingrich could lay his hopes on the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that denied Romney a West Virginia victory in 2008.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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