While former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum may not have excluded the possibility of divine intercession in the Republican battle for the nomination, most of the rest of the planet has finally accepted what has been clear for months: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will be the one to face President Barack Obama in the general election in November.
This gives Santorum’s increasingly desperate campaign the air of dead man walking — he might be breathing, moving, and he certainly is still talking — but those around him are clearly anticipating The End.
Nor are the coming races likely to save him: While his speeches may be rife with locker-room jargon about half-time miracles and comeback performances, the primary in his home state, Pennsylvania, is a lose-lose situation for Santorum.
If he wins, no matter how convincingly, pundits will bill the victory as the recognition due a Favorite Son. Should he lose, a real possibility in a state that rejected him by a record margin in 2006, it will mean sudden death for his already moribund campaign.
In the meantime, he can still do some damage to the frontrunner.
It has been a long and difficult struggle for Romney, who has emerged from the ugly campaign victorious but widely disliked. His approval ratings are at rock bottom, showing that many voters just never seemed to warm to him. He may shine against the less-than-impressive Republican field, but it is far from certain that he can overcome his robotic image to sweep the polls in the fall.
Obama’s own approval ratings are pretty dismal; according to a recent poll, a large number of respondents — 46 percent — “strongly disapprove” of his job performance, while only 25 percent “strongly approve.”
Most surveys show him winning in November, but it is early yet. Once Romney’s gold-plated attack machine swings into action, things could well deteriorate for the president. The Republican heir apparent, despite his squeaky clean image, has shown a striking ability to get down and dirty in his campaigning, and money is no object.
Obama himself is a fearsome campaigner, if he can shake the cerebral and deliberative air that has made him seem detached from an American public fed up with high gasoline prices, bitter debates over health care, and painful setbacks in the international sphere.
Most of all, Obama will have to overcome his own 2008 image as the man who could fix anything.
In numerous conversations with voters from Maine to Florida, one overriding emotion emerges: disappointment in a president who rode into office on a wave of impossibly high hopes.
President George W. Bush had pushed the country to the brink with his foreign adventures, tax breaks for the wealthy, and apparent disregard for the niceties of domestic and international law.
Much of that legacy still lingers, with Obama bearing the brunt of the popular discontent.
Americans are angry; they feel that their country’s status as the unquestioned leader of the Free World is under fire, and they want someone to blame. Whether it’s the economy, education, health care or international relations, almost everyone seems to have a bone to pick with the president.
Women voters are, more and more often, harking back to 2008 with regret.
“I wish Hillary had made it,” is a common refrain, referring to Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination.
Four years ago, Clinton was a divisive and widely disliked figure, but her performance as secretary of state has rehabilitated her image. She is admired for her strength and grace under pressure, even as the public picks at her appearance. Almost no conversation about Clinton ends without a negative allusion to her hair.
Romney’s rhetoric on restoring America’s greatness appeals to many, as do his calm assurances that he can start the economy, put people back to work, and clean up the mess in Washington. Some might wince at his religion, but so far the question of his Mormonism has not proved to be a major issue.
His enormous wealth might inspire envy in some, but others seem to feel that with Romney in the White House they, too, have a shot at joining the upper 1 percent. This is a nation that just spent $1.5 billion on lottery tickets.
So voters will most likely be faced with an unenviable choice in November: a president they do not really approve of, and a challenger they do not really like. Chances are, many will just stay home.