Here's what I wrote in February that still seems relevant:
The 2008 Republican nomination race displayed just how sensitive the GOP race is to the results of Super Tuesday. Candidates that can't instantaneously display a national reach, however feeble, fall flat on their face, immediately. In 2008, I thought John McCain displayed amazing guts by going deeply into debt, despite open rejection by the conservative base, in order to stay just-viable-enough for Super Tuesday (amazing guts, or proof-positive of insanity - take your pick). McCain knew he had broader reach than either Huckabee or Giuliani could muster, especially in places like California, and that he was the stronger candidate - but only if he could survive until Super Tuesday.In February, I thought Sarah Palin had the broadest reach. Today, I think it's Mitt Romney.
So, I suspect the key to 2012 GOP nomination race is deciphering just who has the broadest reach, and is able to stay viable in all quarters of the country. 'Broadest reach' is broadly-defined too: 'reach' can mean many things.
I was surprised by the withdrawal or collapse of so many Southerners in the race - Huckabee, Gingrich, Barbour - particularly since the center-of-gravity of the party is now Southern. The entrance of Rick Perry into the race seemed to take care of this problem, setting up a Northern-Southern dichotomy with Romney, and promising what might be a very close race for the nomination.
But Perry seems to be having problems:
Perry has participated in three presidential debates now, and his performances have been shaky in all of them. But last night took the cake. On a question about Pakistan, he offered incoherent gibberish that made it clear he was entirely unprepared to discuss the subject. When he was handed a ridiculously easy opening to remind the audience of Romney's past crimes against conservatism, he utterly flubbed it, seeming to lose his concentration and spitting out this response:
...And, as has been his custom, he seemed far less focused and energetic as the night wore on. But Romney was sharp and on-point the whole time. He offered his own share of incoherent nonsense -- see, for instance, his response when Perry mentioned that a new edition of Romney's book had scrubbed a reference to making the Massachusetts healthcare plan a national model -- he knew how to sell it. Unlike Perry, Romney was confident and polished, feigning confusion over why anyone would challenge his conservative credentials and insisting he'd been a model of consistency.
The key here is that the Republicans who influence mass opinion in the party seem to be noticing this, and speaking out. After last night's debate, Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard opined that "no front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry" and called it "close to a disqualifying two hours for him." Michelle Malkin ridiculed him for his inability to formulate intelligible responses. David Limbaugh pronounced himself "concerned" that Perry is in "deep trouble." Erick Erickson called his performance "a train wreck." And on and on.
Rick Perry doesn't yet have that national reach, but only a regional reach. He's going to have to reach out further, and like McCain, maybe suffer a lot, if he's going to prevail. As McCain showed in 2008, ideological consistency isn't important at all for the supposedly-inflexible but actually exceedingly-elastic Republicans. With winner-take-all primaries like they have on the GOP (but not Democratic) side, the only important thing that matters is national reach, by whatever means, by Super Tuesday. (And so, why isn't Rick Perry campaigning already in California?)
The South is more ideologically-coherent than the North, but just like in the 1860's, the North is bigger and more-populous, which is why the Northern candidate, Romney, now has the edge.