Mitt Romney at a campaign event at Kirkwood Park in Kirkwood, Mo. (Whitney Curtis / Getty Images )
Reporting from St. Louis — With more than half of the states now having voted, a clear pattern has emerged in the Republican race for president: Mitt Romney seems to be on a slow, steady march to the party's nomination.
And large numbers of Republicans are not happy about that -- or least not yet willing to resign themselves to the prospect.
The results Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi, twin victories for Rick Santorum, were not unexpected, though polling gave Romney hope and the incentive to make a late play for at least one upset (which only served only to make Santorum's victories all the more notable). The wins give the former Pennsylvania senator a big boost -- psychologically but also practically speaking. His performance will doubtless stoke his fundraising and, more than ever, stamp Santorum as the chief alternative to Romney, who continues to struggle with a large swath of the Republican base.
Once more, Romney failed to win over the most conservative voters, the less well-to-do and voters for whom faith and religiosity matter a good deal. His third-place finish in the two states was an embarrassment.
But the results don't change the fundamentals of the contest, which continue to favor the front-runner and point to Romney's ultimate success, albeit more expensively and grudgingly than the former Massachusetts governor and his supporters would like.
Even in defeat, Romney continues to stack up delegates; the math, as his campaign repeatedly stresses, is strongly in his favor. Victories in caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa, also Tuesday, neutralized any delegate advantage Santorum gained in the two Southern primaries.
The change from winner-takes-all to proportional awarding of delegates seemed to hurt Romney for a time, encouraging Santorum and Newt Gingrich to persist long after their campaigns seemed viable. Now he stands to benefit from the formula, which makes it harder for Santorum to overcome his deficit in the delegate count, however many states he wins.
The biggest loser Tuesday was former House Speaker Gingrich, who expected to revive his campaign with a pair of Southern victories. He did not, and the clamor will grow for him to step aside and give Santorum a clear shot at Romney.
The next important test comes Tuesday in Illinois. (Missouri will hold caucuses Saturday, the start of its delegate-awarding process. But the state already made its splash earlier in the contest, resuscitating Santorum's campaign last month by giving him a big win in a non-binding "beauty contest.")
The Illinois primary has a history of settling matters. Victories there clinched the nomination for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush on the Republican side and for Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton in their Democratic contests.
But it won't end this nominating fight. Instead, Illinois presents yet another back-to-the-wall moment for Romney, after earlier win-or-bust contests in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.
If, as still seems likely, Romney emerges as the GOP standard-bearer in November, it won't have come easily; no one could say he hadn’t earned it.