WASHINGTON — If Mitt Romney loses the Tuesday primary in Michigan, panic will set in among Republican politicians and big contributors; talk of a brokered convention or a late-entering candidate will reach a crescendo.
To be sure, the Republican presidential contest could be in shambles. If Romney then loses Ohio the following week, he’s a severely — as he might put it — wounded ex-front-runner. If former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum wins these two contests, there will be fresh tension over his general-election prospects.
Party leaders, such as they are, will place frantic calls to former Florida governor Jeb Bush or current governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey, or even to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The dream of almost every political reporter is for the first truly brokered convention in more than 75 years.
It’s not going to happen.
First, Romney is a slight favorite in Michigan. Even if he’s upset, it won’t lead to the brokered-convention scenario. I talked last week with five Republicans who would be on anyone’s list of the 25 most influential in the party. They all dismissed such prospects. A late entry is a non-starter, as is a candidate who hasn’t contested for the nomination.
For better or worse, voters, not power brokers, pick presidential nominees. If Romney wins Michigan and Ohio, he’s right back to being the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. If his nightmare scenario unfolds, Santorum becomes the favorite, with Romney still in the game.
A Romney loss will bring a cry for a new candidate. Anyone entering the race in late-February could still compete in more than half of the primaries. As late as June 5, there are primaries in California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Montana, offering 271 delegates, or more than have been chosen so far.
Except, there’s no natural candidate. The most logical would be Jeb Bush, a seasoned adult acceptable to almost all elements of the party. The 59-year-old Bush, however, has made it clear to associates and those who ask that for personal and political reasons he won’t run this year. Informed sources say this hasn’t changed.
Two current governors, Daniels, 62, and Christie, 49, have been mentioned. None of the reasons that caused them not to run — the Indiana chief executive lacks the fire in the belly and the New Jersey chief executive has said he wasn’t ready for the White House, and both would have problems with the cultural right — have changed.
The freshest new face would be Ryan, 42, the articulate chairman of the House Budget Committee, who is a genuine ideas man. He’s never run outside his southeastern Wisconsin district, and in a national contest, he probably would resemble the proverbial can’t-miss baseball prospect who’s rushed to the Major Leagues too soon and never achieves his potential.
Of the front-runners, even politicians disposed to support Romney and who believe he is the strongest candidate against President Barack Obama, are taken back by the persistent resistance to his nomination from a sizeable faction of Republican conservatives. By the end of January, the former Massachusetts governor had more money, endorsements, experience as a candidate, and had won New Hampshire, almost won Iowa and ran away with Florida. In past years that would have been game, set, match. Not this time.
In Santorum’s case, it’s the lack of peer support that is striking. Of the 78 Republicans he served with in the Senate, only one is backing him. Almost no major Republican from his home state of Pennsylvania is a backer. You get a blank stare when you ask leading party professionals about Santorum’s inner circle.
Still, the odds in Las Vegas this week are around 90 percent that one of these two men will be the party’s nominee. Here is some solace for the Republican nervous Nellies: At this same stage in the campaign, both Reagan and Bill Clinton looked like losers. OK, it’s a reach; it’s the best they have.
ALBERT R. HUNT is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.