Rick Santorum won the Louisiana primary on Saturday by a huge margin. Despite the breathless media coverage, it doesn't mean much for the Republican nomination contest. What was true last week is still true now: Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee, and all that's left is for him to accumulate the delegates he needs to make that official.
As we go through the remaining primaries, there are a few things you should look for. The first, and most obvious, is what party leaders have to say about the candidates. With Romney the unofficial winner, party leaders will want to begin to move to the general election, but that won't be possible if Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul are still contesting the eventual Romney nomination. As such, you should expect influential Republicans to try to push the remaining candidates out of the race. Already, Tea Party leader Jim DeMint has encouraged the other candidates to re-evaluate their decision to stay in:
"We all need to look at this presidential primary and encourage the candidates to do a little self-reflection here on what's good for our country," the influential South Carolina conservative told reporters in the Capitol after attending a group meeting with Romney. "The sooner we can make a decision, the sooner we can focus on the real problem, which is Obama."
Another conservative favorite, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, has also given his thumbs up to Romney: "After a long and grueling primary, it is clear that Mitt Romney is the best candidate to face President Obama and fix the mess of his one and only term," he says. This, along with Jeb Bush's endorsement, sends a clear message—this fight is over, let's clean up and prepare to take on Barack Obama. Over the next week, I expect similar words from other party leaders as they attempt to give Romney the space he needs to reboot and move forward.
On that note, expect Romney to begin to shake the Etch A Sketch, and retool his campaign for the general election. Already, the press is primed to accept the former Massachusetts governor as a genuine moderate. Here's Chris Cillizza, arguing that Romney is stronger than he looks:
Romney is a moderate (tonally, at least) in a party that wants red-meat conservatism. The rise of less-than-serious candidates such as reality TV star Donald Trump and businessman Herman Cain was built on their willingness to channel the anger that the base feels toward President Obama. Even Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought to tap into that sentiment, accusing the incumbent of being a “socialist” who is prosecuting a “war on religion.” Contrast that with Romney, who has avoided the sort of dog whistles to the base that would say “I am one of you.” [Emphasis mine]
This is a generous reading of Romney's rhetoric, given that he has based his campaign on a host of aggressive attacks against the president, from decrying the Affordable Care Act as an attack on freedom, to regularly denouncing Obama for an "apology tour" on national security that never happened. This is not the temperate rhetoric of moderate Republican. But because of Romney's persona—no-nonsense businessman—pundits will assume moderation, despite the fact that Romney is touting the same extremist policies as radicals like Paul Ryan. The Etch A Sketch will work, and we should expect to see it soon.
The important thing to remember for all of this is that the party has decided. We're just waiting for the voters to catch up.
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