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The practical effects of Rick Santorum’s sweep of the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and the Missouri nonbinding primary are that it moves his long-shot candidacy marginally ahead while undercutting Mitt Romney’s argument of inevitability. The Romney campaign decided to expend minimal money and candidate time (the scarcest of commodities) on these contests, instead investing time and resources in more-important states that will vote later. This decision will prove to be a prudent one. Santorum will certainly get a boost in money and attention from Tuesday’s trifecta but probably not enough of either to make up for Romney’s huge financial and organizational advantages.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s dark-horse candidacy only got darker. His effort, although long on mind and spirit, is short on money and organization. Gingrich has gone three weeks without a debate -- the oxygen that has fed his candidacy so far. The debate dry spell has contributed to the growing irrelevancy of his bid. But the longer Gingrich stays in the race, the longer he divides the conservative voting bloc with Santorum. The former House speaker attracts voters who will support Romney as their nominee only when he is unopposed.

Ron Paul, meanwhile, goes on his merry way. He has the financial fuel that Santorum and Gingrich lack, but the hard ceiling on his core of supporters keeps him from gaining significance. Although most conservatives agree with Paul on one issue or another, they disagree with him on many more. Such is the life of a candidate with an exotic libertarian-populist-isolationist-conservative blend of positions. Certainly, Paul takes away some voters who might otherwise go to Santorum or Gingrich. He also draws some who simply wouldn’t make the effort to turn out for a more conventional candidate.

In my view, Romney will almost certainly win the Republican nomination. The question is how far to the right he will need to move to get it. At some point, he will have to pivot back toward the middle, toward the swing and independent voters who will ultimately decide the general election. The longer the primary campaign goes, the further from the middle Romney gets. The rightward pull makes it more difficult for him to connect with the swing voters who aren’t fretting so much about President Obama’s ideology as they are about the economy. These voters have grave misgivings about Obama but find the strident Republican rhetoric off-putting or even alarming.

The selection of a vice presidential running mate is a bit overrated, I believe. Voters usually base their decision on the top of the ticket, not on the No. 2 slot. Running mates make more of a difference in their home states than anywhere else. But the vice presidential choice does give voters a clear look at how a nominee’s mind works. Nominees who have significant problems within the party sometimes do some awkward ticket-balancing—trying, in effect, to spackle over gaping holes in their support. I don’t think such odd-couple pairings help a party.

A strong running mate reinforces the nominee’s central message. Just as Bill Clinton’s objective in 1992 in picking Al Gore—a youthful, Southern, centrist Democrat—was to underscore his message of moderation and generational change, I think Romney will look for someone to project his theme of mainstream competence. Picking a current or a former governor or someone with extensive executive-branch credentials, rather than just some random person on Capitol Hill, would be most likely to reinforce that message. Those who come to mind include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a former U.S. trade representative and budget director.

But if strong pockets of resistance within the party persist—among evangelical Christians, those uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormon faith, or simply conservatives needing more reassurance—might Romney pick former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee? He fits the mainstream competence message but also appeals to the party’s social conservatives and rural voters. Or will Romney need to move much further to the right to spackle over holes, even if doing so takes him further from the swing voters? That’s where a longer and uglier nomination fight, even with the same outcome, becomes very important.

In the first three quarters of last year, when unemployment was at 9 percent and the economy seemed to be stalled, Republicans had some justification for thinking that they could nominate a strong, undiluted conservative and still have a good chance of winning the middle and the general election. Now that unemployment is down to 8.3 percent and gross domestic product growth is at 2.8 percent, (even though future trends are unknowable), this race looks much closer.

Some analysts say that the danger of a long, drawn-out nomination battle is that the candidates simply have more time to beat one another’s brains out. I would argue that the greater danger is that the longer the nomination fight goes on, the more likely it becomes that the ideological detour takes a party further toward the flanks. That is the danger for Romney. He started out as a candidate very well positioned for a general election. Will he end up that way?

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