Jon Huntsman has acknowledged the near-inevitability of a Mitt Romney nomination. Why are Perry, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul forging ahead?
Jon Huntsman finally saw the writing on the wall. Now, why can't the rest of them?
Huntsman is slated to drop out of the race for the Republican nomination Monday and endorse Mitt Romney, an overdue conclusion to a disappointing campaign. But that still leaves four candidates whose hopes of winning the nomination are slender.
Despite Romney's unprecedented victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire, his healthy lead in every South Carolina poll released in the last two weeks, his prohibitive fundraising and organizational advantages, these four men -- Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Ron Paul -- will spend the week in advance of the Jan. 21 primary tearing around the Palmetto State, trying to convince the voters who have selected the Republican nominee without fail since 1980 that they still stand a chance.
Though Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally served to winnow the field, a lively chorus of also-rans perseveres. Their motivations are unclear, but seem to consist of a cocktail of wishful thinking and lack of anything better to do.
"I can't for the life of me figure out why someone like [Rick] Perry [is] staying in the race," said a strategist for a rival campaign. "I think part of it is how the race played out from the straw poll to the [Iowa] caucus. Everyone got a chance to be in the lead.... Thus, those who are staying in believe they have a chance to catch lightning. I don't see it, but hope dies last."
Indeed, every gyration of the race thus far has rewarded sticking it out when things seemed hopeless: Santorum was polling in single digits a week before the caucuses, only to surge at the finish and tie Romney with 25 percent of the vote. The proliferation of debates has increased the opportunities for sudden turning points, and with them, the lottery-like sense that at any moment, fortune's favor might turn in a new direction. One minute you're Herman Cain, long-shot candidate on an extended book tour; the next, you're Herman Cain, first place in the polls; the next, you're Herman Cain, disgraced ex-candidate, and it's someone else's turn in the revolving door.
It is always possible that something terrible could suddenly happen to Romney. But it is usually a bad sign for your candidacy if you're only sticking around as an understudy.
Perry appeared to have gotten the message after his fifth-place finish in Iowa, saying in his concession that night that he would go back to Texas and reassess his campaign. But he woke up the next morning determined to continue, surprising his own staff by announcing on Twitter he was headed to South Carolina.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Perry received less than 1 percent of the vote. Though his debate performances have improved from their dark nadir, his attacks on Romney's business credentials as "vulture capitalism" have not appeared to resonate with South Carolina Republicans.
"Perry obviously has not made the sale, even with a week's jump on everyone else," said Ed Rollins, the veteran Republican strategist and onetime Michele Bachmann campaign manager. "They all want to pretend the polls don't count, but polling is pretty darned accurate -- look at the polls so far. You can't move those kind of numbers in a week."
Perry advisers privately acknowledge that, barring a plane crash that eliminates the rest of the candidate field, they are more or less playing out the string. Ever since the Texas governor compared his South Carolina stand to the battle of the Alamo last week, it has seemed apt.
"This is his Alamo," said Chip Felkel, an unaligned South Carolina strategist who worked on George W. Bush's campaigns in the state. "To save face so he can go back and govern Texas, he's got to at least stay in through South Carolina." Perry has been endorsed by some notable figures in the state, including the speaker of the House, who may feel he owes it to them to give it his all, Felkel speculated.
Gingrich and Santorum have more tenable rationales: Santorum practically won Iowa (the results of his photo-finish with Romney are still in dispute), and Gingrich, surprisingly, has been running a clear, not-too-distant second to Romney in recent South Carolina polls.
But Gingrich got less than 10 percent of the New Hampshire vote, after coming in fourth in Iowa. The sensational, inaccuracy-plagued attacks on Romney's work for Bain Capital aired by a pro-Gingrich super PAC have outraged party elites; Gingrich's criticisms along those lines got him booed at a forum over the weekend. It's a common assumption these days that Gingrich's continued campaign is motivated mainly by a desire for revenge against the attacks that brought him so low after flying high in Iowa just a couple of weeks before the caucuses.
Gingrich's pollster, Kellyanne Conway, said there's still a shot for the former House Speaker. In a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, 58 percent of South Carolina voters said they didn't want Romney to be the nominee, while 35 percent said they could still change their minds, including 27 percent of Romney supporters, she noted.
"South Carolina voters are trying to decide which is more important, so-called electability or ideological compatibility," she said. "The Romney people cleverly push this notion of electability because he lacks positions on the issues." But in reality, she contended, "electability is a fiction."
Santorum got a boost over the weekend when a conclave of social conservative leaders, meeting in Texas, voted to anoint him the consensus choice of those who don't want Romney to be the nominee. On the stump, he's been hammering at the theme that he's more electable than Romney because his positions would offer general-election voters a starker alternative President Obama. But the former Pennsylvania senator has seemed to struggle for traction since getting less than 10 percent in New Hampshire.
"Santorum is slipping a little, I believe. I think going to New Hampshire really screwed him up," said Wesley Donehue, a GOP consultant based in Columbia, S.C. As for the big social-conservative endorsement, he said: "I don't think anybody in South Carolina is paying attention to those guys in Texas."
The one candidate whose raison d'etre no one really questions is Ron Paul. That's partly because he's the only candidate besides Romney to finish strongly in both of the first two contests: a close third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire.
But it's mostly due to the sense that being president has never truly been Paul's goal. His aim has been advancing his ideas, building his movement, and carving out a bigger space for libertarianism within the Republican Party. He's hardly campaigned like a man driven by relentless ambition: While the rest of the contenders were tramping across South Carolina late last week, Paul took a four-day respite from the trail.
It's not that the race ought to be over by now. Only two states have voted, after all, and there's abundant evidence that the Republican Party as a whole is less than thrilled at the prospect of a Romney nomination. But party regulars are also eager to get the general election under way; they would like, at least, to have gleaned a little clarity from the first two contests, which usually do so much to distill things.
Instead, the race for the GOP nomination isn't too much different than it was before Iowa: One credible campaign on a freight-train course to coronation, while the rest hang around waiting for a lucky break -- an anything-can-happen melee.
"Who knows?" a Perry adviser said hopefully. "It could either become very predictable -- or it could keep on being unpredictable."
Image credit: Getty Images/Emmanuel Dunand