WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney has always pitched himself as a numbers guy. His business background and balance-sheet savvy are cited as evidence of candidate well steeped in economic matters. His time in the world of private equity is offered as evidence of budget-balance acumen.
So it is fitting, in a way, that after two big losses in the latest Republican primaries on Tuesday night, the main pitch for Romney's campaign is now, basically, mathematical probability. The former Massachusetts governor finished third in Mississippi, behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, with 30 percent of the vote. And he was headed for a third-place finish in Alabama, with 29 percent of the vote.
The double-barreled setback was unexpected in Mississippi, reflecting neither polling numbers nor the expectations that Romney's campaign was setting in the days leading up to the vote. And in the aftermath, Romney's aides were left with unemotional appeals for why the primary remained very much his alone.
"Mathematically we are fast approaching the point where it is going to be a virtual impossibility" for opponents to win enough delegates, Romney's top spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom told CNN.
The statement had the benefit of being largely true. Romney's delegate lead is unlikely to diminish much -- if any -- by Wednesday morning. Votes were still outstanding in American Samoa and Hawaii, where Romney seemed poised to pick up more delegates than his rivals. Both southern contests, meanwhile, were proportional, awarding delegates based on results in congressional districts.
Perhaps most significantly, the next primaries provide some measure of relief for the former governor, with more moderate states like Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland set to hold elections.
But the possibility that Romney himself won't make the 1,144-delegate threshold to formally wrap-up the nomination became a bit more real on Tuesday.
"This race is going on and on and on," Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush, said on CNN. "There is no end in sight."
The strain that this primary has caused on Romney's campaign was evident once again. Romney continued to have trouble winning the GOP base. In Alabama, 67 percent of voters described themselves as conservative. Of those, 36 percent backed Rick Santorum, 35 percent backed Newt Gingrich, while just 24 percent supported Romney. In Mississippi, 72 percent of voters described themselves as conservative. Of those, 35 percent backed Rick Santorum, 32 percent backed Newt Gingrich, and 29 percent supported Romney, according to exit polls.
Faced with those numbers, Romney spokesman Ferhnstrom stuck to a different calculus.
"Our goal was to take out one-third of the delegates and possibly do slight better than that. I think we will exceed that goal," he said. " I don't think anybody expected Mitt to win Alabama or Mississippi. As Mitt said, this was an away game for him, and I think that's absolutely true."
But if defeat in those states was always in the cards, Romney, his aides, and his most deep-pocketed supporters failed to get the memo. The candidate himself boldly declared during his one public appearance in Alabama on Monday: "We're going to win tomorrow." Meanwhile his campaign and an allied super PAC outspent Santorum and Santorum's allied super PAC by a 5.5-to-1 margin in both states combined.
“With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination," Romney said in a statement. "Ann and I would like to thank the people of Alabama and Mississippi. Because of their support, our campaign is on the move and ready to take on President Obama in the fall.”
Money, it increasingly appears, can't buy states. But that doesn't mean that Romney and his allies won't spend heavily. Early reports had them with $3.2 million in airtime purchases in Illinois. No other campaign was on the air.
More important than the cash, however, may be the continuity of the field. Despite failing once more to notch a win, Gingrich pledged to keep his campaign going -- a vow that will hurt Santorum far more than any super PAC ad.
And so, Romney's people could spin and breathe a bit easily on Tuesday. But while Fehrnstrom declared that he saw no conceivable path for either Gingrich or Santorum to pick up the 1,144 necessary delegates, others were granted the opportunity to note that even the numbers-guy Romney faces difficult math and political realities of his own.
"I heard them say earlier that it was the end of a desperate campaign," Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley told The Huffington Post. "Was he talking about his own?"