Mitt Romney has morphed from the inevitable candidate into a Sisyphean character.
The former Massachusetts governor, with the looks, pedigree and resume tailor-made for a White House run, was forced to push the rock once again up the proverbial hill on Super Tuesday, falling well short of breaking away from the rest of the field.
A squeaker of a win over Rick Santorum in Ohio was, as GOP strategist Alex Castellanos called it on CNN, a "near-death experience" for his campaign. That it was coupled with defeats in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, made it all the more difficult to swallow.
Even some of the wins notched by Romney on Tuesday lacked the flair that would make his night more easily spinable for the operatives he employs. Massachusetts -- where with 98 percent of the results Romney was winning 72 percent of the vote -- is his home state. Vermont is a neighbor to the north. A win in Virginia was a good get. But not when one considers that only Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) were on the ballot. Even more, Paul got a surprising 40 percent of the Virginia vote (a number inflated by Romney opponents using the congressman as a proxy candidate).
"Who could have imagined you would have a hard time putting away Rick Santorum in Ohio, or Newt Gingrich at this stage of the campaign?" asked David Gergen, also on CNN. "That speaks to the weakness of the candidate."
Weakness, of course, doesn't necessarily mean defeat. And the irony of Romney's bad night is that he took tangible steps towards securing the GOP presidential nomination. The former governor is poised to pad his lead in the all-important delegate race. In Idaho, he was set to add all of the state's 32 delegates. In Ohio, he stood to benefit from Santorum's inability to gather enough signatures in several districts. In Virginia, Romney was set to win 43 of the state's 46 delegates. And in Georgia, he stood to benefit from Santorum ending up with less than 20 percent of the vote, disqualifying the former senator from winning any delegates at all.
"There will be good days and bad days, always long hours and never enough time," Romney said during his Tuesday night speech. "But, on November 6th, we will stand united -– not only having won an election, but having saved a future."
But even the positive delegate trend lines didn't come without caveats. As the Huffington Post's Howard Fineman reported, the Romney campaign was spinning Tuesday's results before they came in, lowering expectations and suggesting that even the ex-governor may be unable to gather the 1,144 delegates needed to end the nomination before the convention.
The next few races aren't exactly favorable for Romney, either. The candidate who has had trouble in the South -- save Florida -- will face a caucus in Kansas on Saturday, along with primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday. The second round of the Missouri caucus follows March 17.
Whether Romney's money advantage can drag him through those elections isn't entirely clear. While Romney's campaign and its allied super PAC curbed Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, the candidate lost Tennessee convincingly, despite a major spending advantage. It's unclear whether the campaign still has money to spend, much to the delight of the general election opponent.
"Romney may try to pivot rhetorically, but he is going to be spending millions of more dollars trying to wring every delegate out of this process," a top Obama adviser told The Huffington Post.
Were cash the only problem facing Romney in the long run, the prospect of an even more prolonged GOP primary would be semi-tolerable. But the laborious process to get to this point has made him a far weaker candidate than when he entered the race. A CNN poll from early May 2011 had Romney enjoying a 40 percent favorable rating and a 30 percent unfavorable rating, with 19 percent saying they hadn't heard enough. By Feb. 13, 2012, CNN had those numbers at 54 percent unfavorable and 34 percent favorable, with 7 percent undecided.
Even on the issues of perceived strength, Romney is searching for a breakthrough. In Ohio, where 73 percent of the electorate said they were "very worried" about the economy, Romney won by a remarkably slim 38 percent to 36 percent. Among those "somewhat worried" about the economy, Santorum led 41 percent to 36 percent.
And so, the candidate who pundits once predicted would coast to the nomination was forced, once more, to reassess and start again. The speech Romney gave on Tuesday night was set in Massachusetts, giving the impression of a time-for-the-general-election-to-begin address. "Thanks guys, nice races," he said in a nod to his opponents.
But as he addressed a revved-up crowd early in the night, there was a subtle recognition that the campaign has been draining, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
"It's been a long road getting to super Tuesday, lets be honest," said Romney. "Tonight we’ve taken one more step toward restoring the promise of America. Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we do the same."