State of the GOP race: Romney's ahead, Santorum has momentum

Rick Santorum piled up wins this week, but not delegates, and it looks like Mitt Romney is in for a much longer struggle than he'd anticipated.

Ahead of results from the Maine caucuses, what did some Republican strategists who are not involved in the current GOP campaign think of Santorum's big upsets in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado? And what do they think will happen next?

John McCain's former strategist Steve Schmidt, who engineered the Sarah Palin vice presidential nomination, said he thinks Santorum is about to feel the heat from the well-financed Romney campaign, which has already launched multiple attacks by surrogates on Santorum's past support of earmarks.

"Santorum has been the equivalent of patted on the head, and not engaged, and I suspect that is about to change," said Schmidt. "Rick Santorum has had precious few attacks directed against him because nobody has wanted to alienate the Santorum voter, but he is in many ways a more formidable opponent than Newt Gingrich, because he lacks Gingrich's baggage and 100% name identity. Santorum is going to need to buckle up the chin strap, because Romney has been about disqualifying the opposition, not necessarily communicating Gov. Romney's virtues."

California Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox said he thinks Santorum's wins did not alter Romney's status as front runner so much as ruin Newt Gingrich's shot at being the "conservative alternative."

"I do not subscribe to the theory that this is any kind of Santorum surge," Wilcox said. "This raises the stakes for the Feb. 22 debate in Mesa [Ariz.]. I predict a big free-for-all."

He noted that this is the second time it has appeared that Romney was about vault into an unstoppable lead, "only to have voters say, 'Not so fast.'"

"The system is designed to end quickly," Wilcox said. "The front-loaded primaries, the machinations of the states—that's all designed to get a nominee as soon as possible. It's the voters who are resisting and want the process to continue."

Schmidt said he didn't think Romney's status as a front-runner has been fatally injured.

"All campaigns hope for an easy path to nomination," said Schmidt. "Usually that doesn't happen. It is a difficult and arduous path, and that's proving to be the case for Gov. Romney. There is evidence by the exit polls that showed after Florida that 40% of the electorate wanted additional candidates in the race, which isn't going to happen. Republican voters are united in their desire to see the president serve one term, but are dissatisfied with the candidates in the race, and that's manifesting itself with some of the results that you saw yesterday. I do think the delegate counts still advantage Gov. Romney. The fact that he has money and organization still means he's the overwhelmingly likely nominee, but he has work to do, and he's going through  a process of weakening in two key areas, his fave/unfave ratio with Republican and independents who are determinative of the outcome, and there is evidence that he is starting to slip in the race against Obama."

These sorts of twists and turns are to be expected, said Wilcox.

"Every field, whether it has the future president in it or not, has been complained about by the primary voter," Wilcox said.  "Everybody thinks that Bill Clinton had a hop, skip and jump the White House, but he went through tremendous contours and hiccups. He lost a primary to Jerry Brown much later than this, and it turned out OK for him." [Brown gave Clinton a run for the money until April 1992]

As for Gingrich, whose campaign has been counted out twice before,  said Wilcox, "I don't know if he is going to rise from the dead with his hockey mask and chain saw a third time, but it wouldn't surprise me if he did."

Whit Ayres, a former strategist for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, is now neutral in the race.

"It's clear that Mitt Romney is not the No. 1 choice of the most conservative members of the Republican Party," said Ayres. "It's also clear they're going to exhaust every possible option before settling on Mitt Romney as the nominee."

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