Having fizzled once again in the South, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is testing one of the enduring tenets of the American political system: winning doesn’t always matter.
After victories by Rick Santorum in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, the campaigns were focusing on the next set of contests — Puerto Rico, Missouri and Illinois — in what promises to be a grinding effort to woo Republican voters for months to come.
But despite the millions of dollars that Mr. Romney and his allies continue to spend to try to emerge victorious in those contests, his campaign now increasingly argues that the outcomes are not the only things that matter. Their premise: Mr. Romney can — and will — win even while losing.
“Tuesday’s results actually increased Governor Romney’s delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of mathematical elimination,” Rich Beeson, the campaign’s political director, argued in a strategy memorandum on Wednesday.
Mr. Beeson may be right. By jumping out to an early lead in delegates in January, Mr. Romney has built himself a delegate cushion that should allow him to continue losing nominating contests without jeopardizing his lead over his main rivals, Mr. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House.
And a new national poll by the Pew Research Center shows Mr. Romney with a lead over Mr. Santorum among Republican voters, 33 percent to 24 percent.
The question Mr. Romney now faces is whether he can endure the psychological damage from that kind of campaign. Winning usually begets winning in the minds of voters, and a series of repeat disappointments could leave Mr. Romney saddled with low expectations among his supporters even as he prepares to face President Obama in the fall. The Pew poll showed Mr. Obama ahead of Mr. Romney by 12 points in a hypothetical matchup.
And Mr. Romney must make sure that the campaign’s effort to frame its tactical approach — an argument for mathematical inevitability — does not supplant the campaign’s overall political message to voters, that Mr. Romney is an economic fix-it man who can defeat President Obama.
Ahead of the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, Mr. Romney’s advisers publicly predicted that he might win in one or both, apparently encouraged by the possibility that Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich would split conservative voters and clear a path for Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney even declared on Monday that, “We’re going to win tomorrow!”
In fact, as it became clear that he would sink to third place in Alabama and Mississippi, Mr. Romney skipped the traditional primary night speech in favor of a written statement that essentially shrugged off the losses as if they were nothing.
“With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination,” he wrote before heading to New York City on Wednesday for fund-raisers. “Our campaign is on the move and ready to take on President Obama in the fall.”
Mr. Romney’s advisers are still hoping that there will be victories to offset the losses. In the same strategy memo, Mr. Beeson wrote, “So, despite Santorum wins over the last few days in Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi, Governor Romney’s wins over the same period in Wyoming, the Northern Marianas, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and American Samoa have helped expand his delegate lead, pushing him closer to the nomination.” In a late-night tweet, Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser, noted Mr. Romney’s wins in two tiny contests even as he lost the big primaries in the Southern states.
“With overnight wins in Hawaii and American Samoa, Romney gets largest share of delegates out of yesterday’s contests,” Mr. Fehrnstrom wrote.
That earned a quick and mocking reply from David Axelrod, a senior campaign adviser to Mr. Obama, who wrote on Twitter, “You know what they say: as America Samoa goes, so goes the nation!”
Sensing that his opportunities have widened to stop Mr. Romney’s march toward the nomination, Mr. Santorum on Tuesday night predicted that he would win the upcoming contests. Speaking to raucous supporters in Louisiana, he pledged to win big in the state’s primary on March 24.
“Next week, we’ll come back here, and we expect a huge win here in Cajun country,” Mr. Santorum said. “We will compete everywhere. The time is now for conservatives to pull together.”
And Mr. Gingrich, in his own speech after losing the primaries, mocked Mr. Romney for his continuing claims to be the front-runner of the Republican contest.
“If you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner,” Mr. Gingrich told a small crowd of supporters as he pledged to continue campaigning through the spring and summer.
But both men face challenges as they move ahead with campaigns that may increasingly be seen as damaging to the Republican Party’s prospects of defeating Mr. Obama in the fall, particularly in the case of Mr. Gingrich, who is likely to face increasing calls to leave the race.
Cable news hosts spent much of the evening on Tuesday describing how difficult it will be for Mr. Santorum to catch up to Mr. Romney’s lead in delegates, and noting that it is all-but impossible for Mr. Gingrich to do so.
Ahead of Tuesday’s voting, Mr. Santorum’s campaign pushed the idea that they could effectively block Mr. Romney from clinching the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer. But that argument is — like Mr. Romney’s — hardly a positive message likely to inspire voters.
Residents of Puerto Rico and Missouri will vote over the weekend. The contest in Missouri may be an opportunity for Mr. Romney to embarrass his chief rival. Mr. Santorum won the state’s nonbinding primary last month, but could lose the majority of delegates to Mr. Romney on Saturday.
The next big test for the candidates will be the following week.
On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls in Illinois, a state that should provide another test of how Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum can appeal to the Midwestern sensibilities of voters. Mr. Romney had built up an early lead in the state, but polls had shown a tighter race there even before Mr. Santorum’s Southern victories. Still, Mr. Santorum has failed to file a full slate of delegates in several Congressional districts, meaning he could win the vote in the state, but lose the delegate count to Mr. Romney.
On Wednesday, Mr. Romney’s campaign announced the endorsement of Tom Ridge, a former secretary of homeland security and a former governor of Mr. Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania. Mr. Romney’s campaign is hoping that endorsements from people like Mr. Ridge will help in primaries like Illinois, and also in Pennsylvania, which will vote on April 24.
“Given the economic problems that America faces, including Pennsylvania, where high unemployment continues to cause such hardship, his experience turning around failing enterprises makes him precisely what the country needs,” Mr. Ridge said of Mr. Romney in a statement. “I’m proud to endorse Mitt’s candidacy and will work hard to help him recapture the White House this coming November.”
On March 24, the race returns to the South for the Louisiana primary. Mr. Santorum is already predicting success. Given Mr. Romney’s track record in the South — he has lost five big contests in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama — it is possible that he might choose not to compete in Louisiana.
But Mr. Romney’s campaign has tended not to shy away from contests where he is not expected to do well. In Iowa, where he struggled in 2008, Mr. Romney competed hard, losing in the end to Mr. Santorum by just a few votes.
In part, that may be a desire by Mr. Romney and his advisers to prove that he is a national candidate who is not afraid to show up. It is also the central part of his delegate-accumulation strategy. Picking up the delegates means competing — even if it also means losing.