By Geoffrey Garrett
Super Tuesday has left the former governor ahead but hurt by the bitter fight for nomination
This week's Super Tuesday primaries highlighted two things. On the one hand, Mitt Romney almost certainly will be the Republicans' candidate to take on Barack Obama in November's US presidential election.
His organisation and money dwarf those of his opponents. And the sheer mechanics of the primary process make it a near impossibility for Rick Santorum, let alone Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul, to overtake Romney in the only race that really counts, accumulating delegates.
On the other hand, despite Romney's ''inevitability'', his will be a hard slog to the nomination because the Republican base refuses to fall in behind him, keeping other candidates in the race for the long haul.
With several upcoming primaries in the south that he may well lose, and nearly a month more of proportional allocation rather than winner-take-all primaries, Romney will remain a presumptive nominee desperately seeking momentum.
No surprise then that when asked on Super Tuesday if he had anything to say to Romney, Obama merely answered ''Good luck'', with a big smile breaking out all over his face.
This isn't how 2012 was supposed to play out for the Republicans. With Obama vulnerable because of the still dire US economy, the Republican party believed a protracted primary season would do what it did for the Democrats in 2008. Month after month of Obama versus Hillary Clinton captivated America and Obama emerged a much better candidate.
But whereas Clinton-Obama had the marquee power of an Ali-Frazier heavyweight fight, Romney versus anyone-but-Romney feels tedious.
What's worse for the Republicans, the longer the primary campaign goes on, the weaker Romney looks. ''Inauthentic'' is by now the near universal tag on Romney, a mature human version of Barbie's doll friend Ken. When it comes to policy, Romney's opponents are tearing strips off him.
Santorum bludgeons Romney as the worst possible prosecutor of the anti-Obamacare case, perhaps the single most powerful rallying cry among Republicans, because of similarities with Romney's own health reforms as governor of Massachusetts. Romney's black-is-white denials of the clear Obamacare-Romneycare parallels only raise more questions about what he really stands for.
A quarter-billionaire from his time as head of private equity giant Bain Capital, Romney is derided by Santorum and Gingrich as an out-of-touch Wall Street mogul who not only caused the global financial crisis but just doesn't get what post-GFC middle America is going through.
Gaffes such as saying he supports the struggling US auto industry because his wife has a couple of Cadillacs, or that while he doesn't watch the south's near religion of stock-car racing he is friends with some of the sport's multi-millionaire owners, alienate the average Americans Romney is trying to attract.
With the US economy and Obama's poll numbers slowly improving, the plastic mega-rich moderate just doesn't look much like the next president.
Still, Republicans believe all is not lost. A new theme on the Right is that 2012 is starting to resemble 1980, when incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter was felled by Ronald Reagan.
Republicans have long wanted to portray Obama as a second Carter. And the similarities between Reagan and Romney are obvious: former governors of Left-liberal states, big careers outside politics and very presidential hair.
But Romney's hopes for ''1980 the sequel'' depend much more on the real world than the candidates themselves; a good thing for him.
Reagan was far from the Republican messiah in March 1980. Like Romney, he was knee-deep in the nomination struggle. Eight months later, Reagan won the White House because the US economy was mired in a deep slump, petrol prices were intolerably high, and Carter was powerless to bring home the US hostages from Tehran.
Unemployment is higher and housing is in much worse shape today than in 1980. But back then inflation was in double digits and interest rates were twice as high, light years from today's historic lows. Call the overall health of the economy a scoreless draw.
More importantly, things were still getting worse for the US economy in 1980. The post-GFC US nadir was probably a year or two ago. In the past six months, economic indicators have turned positive. Advantage Obama.
But Iran could again derail the economy, spike petrol prices and cast Obama as fatally weak. That is why Obama is doing all he can to walk the fine line between being tough enough on Iran to keep the Israelis from launching a desperate unilateral strike and calm enough not to incite a broader war.
No one, not least Romney or the Republicans, despite their tough talk, wants an Iran crisis that flares dangerously out of control. The costs would be intolerably high on so many dimensions.
Absent a real international crisis, however, the chances for a Hollywood ending to the US presidential election for Romney are much poorer today than anyone would have thought 12 months ago.