By BJ Bjornson
If the early primaries are mostly about expectations, Mitt Romney has to be feeling pretty good this morning. Sure, his first-place finish is so close as to remain almost provisional, but the real danger going into the caucuses was that his support was soft enough that he�d wind up placing third behind Paul and Santorum, and possibly even worse had Gingrich�s support not already plummeted. (And make no mistake that many of us watching were hoping for such a result, as it would speak to a longer and messier GOP primary.)
Looking forward, Romney is polling well enough that he should have a lock on New Hampshire, which means the next major stumbling block for Romney will come on the 21st in South Carolina. I haven�t paid any real attention to polling in S.C. outside of noting that the last I checked, Gingrich was well ahead. Of the two candidates who also did well in Iowa, Paul is a lunatic who will fade quickly, and Santorum is a lunatic who should play well with the social conservative lunatics that have taken over the Republican party, but lacks funding and nationwide infrastructure to run a real race against Romney. Still, if memory serves, South Carolina was one of those states in 2008 where another candidate with limited funding and infrastructure, Huckabee, still parlayed his evangelical roots to a number of victories in the Bible Belt.
With Rick Perry now pretty much out of the race, there isn�t anyone left who can really run a 50-state campaign against Romney, which, despite however many stumbles his immediate future holds, bodes well for Romney being the eventual nominee. Nate Silver does a good job of summing things up:
However, even if Mr. Santorum catches fire, or even if Jon M. Huntsman Jr. surges in the polls, or even if (perhaps less plausibly) Newt Gingrich somehow resurrects himself yet again, Mr. Romney will have a lot of second and third chances. Mr. Romney could lose South Carolina but win Florida. He could lose South Carolina and Florida but rebound in the caucus states of February, or on Super Tuesday. He could be engaged in a more-or-less even delegate battle with someone like Mr. Santorum for a long while � but emerge with the most delegates at the end.
Some of these scenarios are not great for Mr. Romney. There is certainly the chance that he wins the nomination without really capturing Republican voters� hearts and minds, and that might Republican impact turnout at the margin in November.
. . .
The bottom line is that Mr. Romney�s chances of becoming president are a little higher than they were 24 hours ago, quite a bit higher than they were 24 days ago, and much higher than they were 24 months ago, when he was one of among dozens of potential aspirants to the nomination. If Mr. Romney achieves his goal, he will have some more aesthetically-pleasing victories along the way.
I suspect short of some very unlikely scenarios, the establishment and media (but I repeat myself) will crown Romney the nominee as soon as they plausibly can so they can move onto the real battle between him and Obama.
Oh well, sometimes when you root for injuries, you just have to resign yourself to the fact there just won�t be that many.