WASHINGTON -- After winning six Super Tuesday state contests -- the primaries in Ohio, Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, and the Idaho and Alaska caucuses -- Mitt Romney has reason to crow. Instead, he may be asking himself: If this is victory, what must defeat feel like?
His successes in these states were accompanied by exit polls and other voter comments expressing ambiguous support or enthusiasm for his candidacy. Questions cling to Romney concerning the legitimacy of his conservatism and his genuine comprehension of average voters, whose kinship he clearly cannot claim by wealth or life experience.
Ron Paul, who is competing more as a cause than as a prospective president. In Idaho, his family's Mormon roots worked for him. And in Ohio, his edge over Rick Santorum was so narrow that it allowed the loser to declare a moral victory.
Rather than being driven to the sidelines, Santorum, Paul and Newt Gingrich all have vowed to press on, with the next round of primaries offering hope in the South, Romney's weakest region so far. Republicans will vote next Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi, and in Louisiana on March 24, with Gingrich particularly hoping to revive his campaign, having been given a boost by victory in his home state of Georgia on Super Tuesday.
Romney can legitimately remind the country that the preconvention season has pivoted from a battle for public and news media perceptions of strength to the dogged struggle for convention delegates that will determine which candidate will face President Obama in November.
With superior ground organization and financial resources, Romney has every reason to contend that he is best equipped to endure and survive the slog ahead to accumulate the 1,144 majority required for nomination in Tampa in late summer.
But the longer it takes him to achieve that end, the longer the attacks from his opponents will go on. And, with them, the questions that have fed the doubts about who Romney is and whether he can beat Obama in the fall will continue as well.
Romney partisans argue that the arrows he has taken so far will only make him a stronger candidate in the general election. However, his propensity to continue the campaign gaffes that have undermined his effort from the start gives little evidence of a learning curve.
The history of political gaffes indicates that one or two missteps may not be fatal, but that once the perception of a pattern sets in, it is likely to stick. For example, serial boneheaded comments by Dan Quayle and exaggerated claims by Al Gore in their vice-presidential campaigns haunted them long thereafter.
In Romney's case, his seeming inability to avoid drawing attention to his wealth, his associations and his lifestyle have become a running narrative in this campaign. First, it was his offer to wager an opponent $10,000 when you and I might have gambled a fiver in arguing a point. Then it was dismissing the $340,000 he made one year in speechmaking as "not very much." Finally came his confession that some of his friends were not mere NASCAR fans but owners of the fabulously expensive racing machines. He topped that one off after telling the Detroit Economic Club that he drove "a (Ford) Mustang and a Chevy pickup," adding that his wife got by with "two Cadillacs."
That sort of tin ear for how such comments sound on Main Street is particularly damaging in the context of how Romney has made his fortune in venture capitalism. His foes have painted his modus operandi as taking failing companies, stripping them down and reselling the parts for the profit of deep-pocketed investors.
The odds are good that this candidate of such conspicuous wealth will succeed in finally hitting the 1,144 delegate mark. How that image will play then among independent and lunch-bucket independents and Democrats will be a question the Obama campaign will certainly keep alive through Election Day.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)