SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Few people expected Mitt Romney to win Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi — until the polls showed neck-and-neck races and Romney started predicting victory. Romney raised expectations, but in the end, what could have been decisive wins proving that he can win the heart of the GOP's base in the Deep South instead only fueled the narrative that Romney is a weak frontrunner who can't close the deal.
Yes, the former Massachusetts governor keeps extending his lead in delegates. But he looks weaker and weaker on the way to the nomination, unable to knock out an underfunded challenger with a far smaller campaign organization.
"If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Gov. Romney is not going to be the nominee," Santorum said Wednesday while campaigning in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which votes Sunday.
Five things we learned this week about the presidential race:
1 It's no longer a safe assumption that the nomination will be settled by the time Republicans converge at the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the GOP convention in August.
The Romney campaign correctly notes that the math looks virtually impossible for Santorum to capture the necessary 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. To do it, the former Pennsylvania senator would have to win nearly 70 percent of the delegates in every remaining contest. But the math is also grim for Romney: He would need to win about 45 percent of every last delegate, while he rarely wins more than 35 percent of the vote anywhere he goes.
Romney is likely to maintain a strong lead over Santorum in delegates as the primary slogs toward June. Unless he and Santorum work something out before August, however, Tampa Bay could be host to the first contested Republican convention since 1976.
2 Romney needs a message. "You're stuck with me,'' seems to be his main argument lately in stressing the delegate math. Romney has to give Republicans a more compelling reason to coalesce behind him than inevitability. And that he's best equipped to turn around the economy is no longer as compelling as the economy improves under President Barack Obama.
He's probably right to try and marginalize Santorum by focusing mostly on the president, but the former governor would be wise to agree to more debates. No one has been more consistently strong in debates than Romney, who has repeatedly used them to knock down his main opponents.
3 It's a two-man race. If it wasn't clear enough already, Tuesday confirmed that Newt Gingrich has little or no rationale left for his candidacy. If he can't win Deep South states other than his home state of Georgia and South Carolina, and he can't win anywhere else, he can't claim to be the strongest candidate. Right now it appears the only thing he can do is help Romney by siphoning votes from Santorum.
The former House speaker insists he's staying in until Tampa. But at some point, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire gambling magnate who spent millions of dollars on TV ads for Gingrich, has to question whether to continue spending so much money on a candidate who no longer looks viable.
4 Illinois. Romney's next best chance to knock out Santorum comes Tuesday, when Illinois voters head to the polls. Santorum lost hard-fought primaries in Ohio and Michigan, despite his blue collar roots and emphasis on growing manufacturing jobs. If he can't win at least one state, Illinois, in the industrial Midwest, his electability pitch takes a big hit. Illinois is the new firewall for Romney, just as Florida, Michigan and Ohio were before.
5 Democrats shouldn't get too cocky. For all the damage the protracted primary has inflicted on the GOP brand, some national polls still show Obama losing to Romney if the election were held today. The average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows the president leading the Republican frontrunner by less than 4 percentage points. GOP super PACs are still far outraising the Democrats, and gas prices are rising. The general election could go either way.