A Romney Comeback?

Not likely. But neither is Hugh Hewitt being delusional when he throws out Rasmussen numbers showing Romney gaining in places like Tennessee and Missouri, California and Georgia. So far, the Republican primary campaign has demonstrated fairly emphatically that the movement conservative establishment, from Rush and Hannity to the Club For Growth, isn't nearly as powerful as many observers assumed it to be. But now I think the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and many commentators are underestimating the impact that a movement establishment united behind Romney could have on the outcome of the race - or could have had, that is, given world enough and time. Except that there isn't time; the movement has rallied to him too late. Hewitt invokes the Feiler Faster Thesis, and notes how swiftly conservative activists derailed the Harriet Miers nomination and the "comprehensive" immigration package. But Patrick Ruffini, writing on the same blog, makes the key distinction:

... Hugh equates the current struggle against McCain with Harriet Miers and the 2007 McCain-Kennedy bill. But there seems to be a misapprehension here about how information moves from opinion leaders to the base, and who the target audience is.

In the Miers case, it was a fight amongst legal elites. Having no dog in the fight, the general Republican electorate eventually fell in line with the anti-Miers forces. Likewise, immigration was a tiff between party activists and Congress; our levers of influence were clear.

Changing the trajectory of this primary is a lot trickier. Like Miers and immigration, the argument has been won amongst the activist class (this is why establishment conservatives are finally falling in line, and why Romney wins caucus votes everywhere but the South). The problem is that we also have to convince a plurality of 15-20 million primary voters with countervailing interests, starting in 22 states, not just that McCain is wrong but that Romney is the answer. And the lines of influence aren’t always clear. Do radio hosts based in DC, New York, and Palm Beach matter as much in places like Huntsville, Alabama and Murfreesboro, Tennessee — where McCain is good enough for many war-minded, loosely attached conservatives?

Ruffini, who's backing Romney, adds that "this is not a call to despair. It’s a call to get to work." And if the activist class had a month to work with - and Huckabee had a month to keep fading, and McCain had a month to wear out his welcome as the front-runner - I think Hewitt, Rush, NR and Co. might be able to pull it off. But my bet is that even with a last-minute surge, Super Tuesday will leave the Romney campaign in too deep a hole to scramble out of, no matter how many activists, pundits, and radio hosts are giving them a leg up.