Republican primary calendar tilts in Romney’s favor after South Carolina

The Republican primary calendar tilts in Mitt Romney’s favor once South Carolina’s contest is over, which could add to the pressure on his GOP rivals to exit the race.

Between Saturday’s vote in the Palmetto State and Super Tuesday on March 6 are elections in a number of states where the former Massachusetts governor is favored to win.

That will make it hard for any candidate who stays in the race to argue that he can still stop Romney — and convince donors to give to that effort. Six of the 11 states Romney won in 2008 will vote in February, and he is well-positioned to win in the seventh, Arizona. 

Anything can happen in politics, but the odds tilt in the Romney’s favor, adding to the storyline that he is the inevitable GOP presidential nominee.

After South Carolina’s contest, the candidates head to Florida, where Romney has a large lead in polls. After that comes Nevada, a state he won by a large margin in 2008, and then follows a string of other states where he is favored to win. February will likely be a grueling month for any candidate facing Romney.

“Two of the first three states — Iowa and South Carolina — were not favorable to Romney. But the next four states basically let Romney say, ‘Let’s shut this thing down,’ ” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “You wonder where these candidates can even compete … They can’t just cede three or four primaries to Romney, but where do you go if you’re Newt [Gingrich] or [Rick] Santorum?”

Romney leads in polls in South Carolina, a tough state for him because of its large number of social conservatives and hard-line Tea Party voters. Romney won just 15 percent of the vote there four years ago, finishing fourth. If he wins there on Saturday, most agree he is all but guaranteed the GOP nomination. But even if he loses, Romney is well off for the next month.

In the last three polls of Florida, Romney has more than 40 percent, doubling the support of his next closest rival in some. It costs $8 million a week to run television ads in the Sunshine State, and Romney is the only candidate who has the money to spend, and the only one on the air. He also has the backing of most of the Cuban political leaders in the state, and Cubans are a crucial swing bloc in any GOP Florida primary.

Four days after Florida’s Jan. 31 contest, Nevada will vote. Romney won a majority in the state’s 2008 caucuses (against multiple candidates) and is in a strong position to repeat that performance this year. He’s also running ads in that state. Nevada has a large Mormon population — more than a quarter of GOP caucus-goers in 2008 were Mormon — and while Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has endorsed Rick Perry, many top Republicans in the state, including Reps. Joe Heck and Mark AmodeiMark AmodeiTrump’s EPA budget cuts hit strong opposition at House panel Healthcare vote puts Heller in a bind Liberal group funds 0K in attack ads after healthcare vote MORE, are backing Romney.

Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri vote next. Romney won the first three states by a wide margin in 2008, and Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot in Missouri. Romney also has a major Missouri backer in Sen. Roy BluntRoy BluntOvernight Regulation: Senate Banking panel huddles with regulators on bank relief | FCC proposes 2M fine on robocaller | Yellowstone grizzly loses endangered protection Overnight Finance: Big US banks pass Fed stress tests | Senate bill repeals most ObamaCare taxes | Senate expected to pass Russian sanctions bill for second time GOP senator: 'No reason' to try to work with Dems on healthcare MORE (R).

At the end of the month come Arizona and Michigan, two more states Romney should have little trouble winning. He did well in Arizona in 2008, finishing strong behind favorite son Sen. John McCainJohn McCainLawmakers wary of Trump escalation in Syria Senators urge Trump to do right thing with arms sales to Taiwan Changing America: America’s growing education divide MORE (R-Ariz.) there. McCain is now backing him, as is popular Rep. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeOPINION: ObamaCare by another name is still ObamaCare Senate should seek to retain its 'blue slip' tradition for judicial nominees Progressives target Heller and Flake on Senate GOP bill MORE (R-Ariz.), and the state, like Nevada and Colorado, has a large percentage of Mormon voters.

Michigan is another Romney stronghold: His father was governor of the state and he won there in 2008. After that, the only other state before Super Tuesday is Washington.

This year delegates are being awarded proportionally until April, and all it takes is one big check to a super-PAC for a candidate to be able to continue the race, making it easier for the nominating process to drag on. But if Romney can continue to rack up wins, it will be hard for any of his opponents to rally against him, raise the money and build the infrastructure to give the former governor a real challenge on Super Tuesday, a day when 10 states will vote. 

Al Cardenas, a former Romney adviser who has remained neutral in the 2012 primary because he heads the American Conservative Union, predicted Romney would struggle in South Carolina but do well afterward.

“A loss in South Carolina will give reason to a non-Romney candidate to emerge past Florida, either Newt or Santorum, with the argument that it’s still early and the head-to-head matchups will change the dynamics of the contest,” he said. “I don’t buy it, unless a lot of resources accompany that claim. [It is] still Romney’s to lose if he does not win in South Carolina.”

Josh Lederman contributed to this report.