Jon Huntsman is out of the race for the GOP Presidential nomination and has endorsed Mitt Romney. Going into Saturday's race in South Carolina, that leaves Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry with campaigns that are still in progress, and consolidates the moderate vote in the GOP nomination race.
Recent polls have shown Gingrich and Santorum splitting support from South Carolina's conservative primary voters fairly evenly, with Perry far behind but still registering an appreciable share of the primary vote, leaving conservatives divided and Romney with a plurality that is strengthened just a bit by Huntsman's departure from the race. A poll released Saturday shows Gingrich slipping into fourth place in South Carolina, with Paul and Santorum tied for second place, but all of the other candidates running far behind front runner Mitt Romney.
Realistically, there is no way that Perry will stay in the running as a viable Republican candidate after a likely last place finish when the results of Saturday's primary are tallied. Of course, Romney, the front runner to date, won't drop out either, no matter what the results are on Saturday. Likewise, Ron Paul, who has an ideological reason for continuing even if he has no hope of actually cinching the nomination and has had respectable showings in Iowa and New Hampshire (and a spot on the Virginia ballot, which candidates other than he and Romney have been denied), is unlikely to fold after South Carolina and unlikely to come in last place in South Carolina either.
If both Perry and either Gingrich or Santorum were to drop out of the Republican primary this week before the primary voters in South Carolina cast their votes, there is a realistic chance that the other could finish in first place in that race and regain momentum. But, there isn't much sign that any of these three men plans to concede before Saturday. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate in modern history with a statistically significant poll lead after New Hampshire to fail to secure her party's nomination in the end, and her lead at that point (9 percentage points), was about half of Romney's current nineteen percentage point lead.
Simply put, Santorum is emerging as the conservative "not Romney" candidate. But, he has hit his stride just a little too late for it to matter.
A Romney who has won Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will look unbeatable going into the rest of the primary season and develop a sense of inevitability to which GOP primary voters are likely to cleve in large numbers, even if after South Carolina, Republican conservatives can manage to rally around either Gingrich or Santorum, neither of whom are perceived as very electable in a general election (for good reason). A Romney win in Florida, which is a more favorable forum for Romney than South Carolina, due to its substantial component of Northern migrants in its electorate, on the momentum of three past wins, would pretty much cement the nomination for Romney this month, even before it reaches the very early Republican caucuses in Colorado. Romney has a twenty point lead in Florida right now, without having a South Carolina win to give him a boost in his fourth contest on Tuesday, January 31.
The odds that our next President will be either Obama or Romney are increasingly great, first because Romney is increasingly likely to win the GOP nomination, and second, because the only other people left who are in a position to win the GOP nomination would have a much weaker chance of defeating Obama in the general election than Romney, even in the unlikely event that they do win the GOP nomination. Paul, Gingrich and Santorum have each said too many things that are too far out of the mainstream to be more palatable to enough moderate general election voters than Obama.
Huntsman and Perry were the last men in the GOP nomination race, other than Romney, who had avoided staking out profoundly extremist views on some subject or another (Paul wants to legalize drugs, urges a return to the gold standard, and take an extreme isolationist position in foreign policy; Gingrich has a willingness to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and arrest judges with whom he disagees; Santorum thinks banning birth control should be at the top of a new President's agenda).
While Romney is not so blatantly and obviously a flawed candidate, has had far better fundraising than any of his competitors, and is the only candidate still viably in the running to have secured a meaningful number of GOP superdelegate endorsements, he is also nothing for Republicans to write home about. He lacks charisma. He has a track record in New England as a moderate who offers little to excite the base or earn their trust that his born again conservative positions on a variety of issues will survive his election, he can't make much hay out of Obamacare, his state is one that Republicans love to hate, and an early conclusion of the primary season will interfere with his ability to hone his machine of grassroots supporters in critical states and deny him free media he would have received if he still had viable competitors. Who cares about primary debates when the primary has already been tied up? He will also go into this race with a significant early fundraising deficit against President Obama, without the benefits of incumbency, and fighting against the tide of unemployment numbers that are finally starting to return to normal. As a man with no foreign policy experience, at a time when the Iraq war and conflict in Libya have been successfully concluded, our involvement in Afghanistan is moderately scaling down, and Osama bin Laden is dead, he has few opportunities to build a winning coalition based on that issue.
More Republicans view Romney as an "acceptable" nominee and fewer view him as an "unacceptable" nominee than any other GOP candidate (59% v. 31%), by a long shot (Santorum is the only other candidate who even has more Republicans who view him as acceptable rather than unacceptable, 45% v. 39%), but 31% of Republicans still view Romney as "unacceptable" which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement and sign is widespread support at the grass roots.