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GOP Presidential Contest: Is It Over Or Just Getting Started?

Over the weekend, we heard Newt Gingrich assuring Floridians that his campaign was going all the way to the GOP's August convention.

Once the delegates got to Tampa, he said, all those who opposed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would unite to deny him the nomination.

"My job is to convert that [anti-Romney majority] into a pro-Gingrich majority," the former House speaker said Sunday.

On the same day, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announced a campaign schedule featuring Missouri and Minnesota and other states holding caucuses or primaries in February. In other words, forget the big Florida test on Tuesday. Santorum is looking down the road to states where competing would cost less money — marshaling resources for the long haul.

And not to be outdone, Texas Rep. Ron Paul announced that he would go all the way to Tampa, too.

What does all this mean? First off, it means Romney's last three rivals have given up on Florida and started preparing their backers for a disappointing night on Tuesday.

Romney, for his part, had no need to reassure anyone about his plans after Tuesday. He knows he's going to win Florida and look like the front-runner again. His biggest problem, with every state poll showing him way ahead, is to make sure his voters don't get complacent and stay home.

But what else does it mean? What are we to make of the rest of the field insisting it will carry on for an additional seven months?

Sure, candidates who are about to lose a primary always say it means nothing to their future plans. They're "in it all the way." They have to say this, or they would have no chance at all of rallying their voters to the polls. Just as important, they would have no chance of collecting on outstanding pledges from funders, much less of persuading new backers to open their wallets.

Anything less than a show of absolute confidence has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.

In this case, it is also quite possible that at least two of the three remaining challengers to Romney will stay in the chase for the foreseeable future — if not all the way to Tampa.

The easiest one to explain is Paul. He has already announced his retirement from the House, and at 76, he is almost surely making his final bid for public office. Moreover, he is not really seeking the presidency so much as he is promoting his libertarian brand of conservatism. He does not expect to take the oath; he expects to see his movement gain momentum.

Paul is polling in single digits in Florida, where he is not campaigning and cannot afford TV time in the major media markets. But that will not cripple his efforts in the coming caucus states, where his loyalists can organize and carve out more substantial chunks of the vote. Paul will almost surely pick up more delegates in these caucus states in the weeks ahead than he has in January. And he can continue these tactics indefinitely at a minimal cost.

Gingrich is quite a different story. Just a week ago he was again predicting he would be the nominee, based on his smashing breakthrough in South Carolina. The Palmetto State, a consistent bellwether since its first presidential primary in 1980, preferred Gingrich by more than 12 percentage points over Romney. But while Florida at first seemed moved by this showing, Gingrich's numbers have eroded steadily since the Jan. 23 debate in Tampa.

One big reason: the saturation ad campaign that has pummeled Gingrich without mercy. A second big reason: the effort by conservative opinion leaders in the media and elsewhere to render Gingrich unacceptable. It is hard to know which barrage has been more debilitating for the former House speaker, who has appeared increasingly testy and beleaguered in response.

It could not have escaped the Gingrich camp that the rest of February includes events in Nevada and Arizona, where Mormons abound, and in Michigan, where Romney's father was a popular governor.

Nonetheless, Gingrich to date has been nothing if not resilient. He rose and fell and rose again before finishing a poor fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet he sprang back to life in South Carolina and has apparently convinced much of the party's most conservative wing that he is their last hope. Over the weekend, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin again urged primary voters to "vote Newt," saying it was the best way to "continue the vetting" of the candidates and "annoy a liberal."

Gingrich might actually be able to consolidate the anti-Romney vote if Santorum were to leave the race. There was talk of this over the weekend as the Pennsylvanian went home to visit his ailing 3-year-old daughter, Bella. But even before this setback, Santorum's severe lack of financing had limited his prospects in Florida. He has said he will press on, but he has no reason to think his financial situation will change materially.

Santorum's main reason to persist is the hope that Gingrich will continue to fade after Florida and become a nonfactor. In that event, that consolidation of conservatives Gingrich is counting on could redound instead to the benefit of Santorum. But will the odds of this outcome be good enough to sustain Santorum's efforts into the spring if his vote share dwindles in one primary after the next? Or will he become another afterthought?

In short, all of Romney's rivals have reasons to vow they will stay the course. But only Paul has a rationale for doing so knowing he will lose. For Santorum, and even for Gingrich, the moment of capitulation — when futility finally overwhelms the dream — is likely to come far sooner.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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