has no base

There was nothing inevitable about Mitt Romney on Tuesday night. And should he lose any other significant primary contests in the weeks to come, he won’t be the most electable, either. Indeed, Romney’s humiliating defeats in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado this week have blown a potentially fatal hole in the argument that the least-conservative candidate would be embraced by the GOP’s conservative base because they simply have no choice. 

What Rick Santorum’s upset victories proved this week has been true all along — that the former Massachusetts governor has no base of loyal supporters in the party, and that the most conservative voters are desperate for another choice. It was true when the party flirted with Sarah Palin, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans hold on to Arizona House seat Dems win majority in New York Senate, but won't control it Mulvaney to bankers: Campaign donations will help limit consumer bureau's power MORE, Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. It is still true now. Though as the nominating contests began, Romney’s impressive organization and considerable resources began to pay dividends, he has failed to excite conservatives even where he wins. While turnout increased slightly in New Hampshire, it decreased in Nevada and Florida from totals in 2008. 

Such weaknesses are hardly building blocks of a nomination, and are liabilities Romney must mitigate to win the nomination and then win in the fall. Without adequate conservative support and energy behind his candidacy, Romney would lose to President Obama — just ask John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMellman: Memories may be beautiful, yet… Schumer to oppose Pompeo as secretary of State Arizona GOP blocked from changing rules on filling McCain's seat MORE. The most active and enthusiastic conservatives, who will be critical to voter turnout in the general election, rejected Romney’s inevitability this week and sent the message Santorum declared as he started his victory speech, that “conservatism is alive and well.”

Romney’s campaign writes off the non-binding caucuses and primaries Santorum won and notes that the delegate count, with Romney ahead 3 to 1, remains unchanged. Missouri’s primary was a straw poll, or “beauty contest,” and along with Minnesota and Colorado is a non-binding contest that doesn’t award delegates the states will choose at a later date. True. But Romney was supposed to win in Colorado, where he beat McCain 60 percent to 18 percent in 2008. And he lost to Santorum, 55 percent to 25 percent in Missouri. Having nearly 138,000 voters turn out for Santorum in the bellwether state of Missouri for a primary that didn’t matter clearly matters. After all, the entire vote total in Nevada was only 33,000. Santorum has now won more states than Romney — and, with the exception of Florida, the critical battleground states the party needs to win in November.

A Romney campaign official asserted Wednesday that only Romney has the “organization, resources and stamina” to win the nomination. Santorum isn’t disputing that: His pitch to conservatives is that a compromised nominee will be defeated. Neither Gingrich nor Romney can lead the GOP to victory this fall with the support they have expressed for TARP, cap-and-trade proposals and mandates for healthcare insurance, Santorum maintains. 

But it isn’t just the mandate that makes Romney “unqualified” to debate Obama on healthcare, Santorum said this week. Even on the most potent new issue the GOP has against the Obama healthcare plan — the administration’s new regulations requiring religious institutions to provide birth control in their healthcare coverage — Romney is vulnerable. Though he decried this “violation of conscience,” it was the same “abortion pills” Romney now condemns that he supported as governor of Massachusetts, when he stated his belief that all rape victims should have access to such “emergency contraception.”

Romney should ready his money and organization for the coming contests, because he won’t be electable if he doesn’t get elected. And conservatives will try mightily to challenge whether inevitability is inevitable after all.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.