Gwen’s Take: Answering Those Super Tuesday Questions

BY Gwen Ifill  March 9, 2012 at 2:23 PM EST

Remember those five things we asked you to watch Tuesday night? It turns out the voters decided to raise more questions than even we had.

But here are the things we were watching for:

1. How weak or strong will Mitt Romney be on Wednesday morning?

Interestingly enough, Romney appeared far weaker Tuesday night than he turned out to be when everyone awoke the next day. With Ohio still hanging in the balance at midnight, Santorum looked pretty good with Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota under his belt. Romney had scored wins only in Massachusetts — a state he once governed — Vermont — a neighboring state — and Virginia, where Ron Paul was his only competition. And even there, Paul was able to consolidate the anti-Romney vote with 41 percent of the total.

But with his Ohio victory, narrow as it was, daylight showed Romney to be so far ahead in the delegate count — with one third of those needed to clinch the nomination — that we were reminded how difficult it will be for anyone else to catch up. And he added wins in Idaho and Alaska for good measure.

2. What is Rick Santorum’s path come Wednesday morning?

If you were expecting Santorum (or Gingrich, or Paul) to fade away, you were sorely mistaken. Santorum, as Romney’s chief rival, was invigorated by the relatively inexpensive success he had at keeping Romney on the run. The Romney forces are stressing their delegate advantage, but that is not new. Santorum, who has been able to tap into the restive ranks of conservative Republicans who do not seem to trust the frontrunner, is diving immediately into Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama.

3. Will Gingrich be credible as a likely nominee even if he wins Georgia?

As his party’s nominee? It’s hard to see how. But as a troublemaker for the foreseeable future? Absolutely. “There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through,” Gingrich said dismissively at his Georgia victory party Tuesday night. “I’m the tortoise; I just take one step at a time.”

But unlike in Georgia, the aforementioned Santorum plans to give Gingrich a run for those anti-Romney voters. As the results in Virginia demonstrated, the former Massachusetts governor is more vulnerable one-on-one. And as the results in South Carolina and Tennessee showed, Romney is weaker in the South.

The longer Gingrich and Santorum duke it out, the better for Romney. But that does not improve the map for Gingrich.

Romney aides told reporters in a post-Super Tuesday strategy memo: “As Governor Romney’s opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama’s.”

4. How vigorously will President Obama try to use his White House bully pulpit to stomp on the GOP’s big day?

Well, he did try. A White House news conference ordinarily sucks all the air out of the room. But since the meeting with reporters was dominated by questions about national security and U.S.-Israel relations, there was precious little time devoted to politics.
But when it did come up — in the form of a question about what he wanted to say to Romney, who had called him “the most feckless president since Carter,” the president shrugged it off. “Good luck tonight.” He said to laughter. “Really?” a reporter asked. “Really,” the president replied, firmly and with a politician’s smile.

It was a handy reminder that the Obama campaign has never taken its eye off the Romney ball. They don’t mind that Romney is in a damaging dogfight, but they have always considered him to be the candidate they will face in the fall.

5. Will Republicans begin to coalesce around a winner?

See above. Not quite yet. But expect Romney to spend the next several weeks trying with all his might to roll out enough endorsements, raise enough money and pull enough strings to rally the party around the strongest argument he has right now: inevitability.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.