With Nevada and South Carolina in the rear-view mirror many things have been learned about the GOP nomination process. We now know that the candidate will not be Hunter, Thompson, or Paul. With increasing clarity it will likely not be Huckabee nor Giuliani, though "Tsunami Tuesday" could change that, in one direction or another.
So who's the new GOP front-runner?
Well despite all the McCain talk - the clear delegate leader is Mitt Romney.
Much of the speculation in the “returns” coverage throughout Saturday night centered on Fred Thompson. Had he not been in the race - who would've won his votes, where would they have gone? Likely to Huckabee. Had Romney simply agreed to stay in the South Carolina contest he too could have bled enough votes to keep McCain from grabbing once again the momentum's spotlight.
Yet McCain had to make some fairly obvious flip-flops to get there, and for all the discussion of Mitt Romney's record on the evolution of his position on several issues, McCain equaled Mitt's in sweeping effect - and did so in about one week's time.
As late as New Hampshire John McCain was still proud of his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, was still deeply embarrassed about his loss on the border fence legislation, and still defied evangelicals by reaffirming his pride in opposing any Constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.
What a difference a few days make.
The South Carolina version of McCain began talking about putting into place permanent versions of the Bush tax cuts, talked about the need to keep the border properly secured by building the "G-d d-mned fence” (his words not ours), and he attempted to court evangelicals by touting his pro-life bona fides.
At least Mitt flipped his positions quite some time before he ran for President!
Largely uncommented on in the talking head analysis Saturday night was the reality that the only states McCain wins in - or at least has thus far, are the wide-open primary states. States where non-republicans can go - even at the last minute, decide to cast a vote and sway the accurate "republican" voice of the states.
In South Carolina, Huckabee won the categories of "Republicans", "Conservatives", "Very Conservative", "Evangelicals", and about a dozen other categories.
McCain's big draw was among "independents", "moderates."
Lost in the end-of-the day news from the GOP race are two numbers 72 to 76.
Seventy-two is the number of delegates that Romney has quietly assembled in finishing consistently high in all five primaries to date. Seventy-six is the number that all other GOP candidates have COMBINED.
The longer the "also-rans" continue to stay in the race the more distorted the results will continue to appear.
Add to this mix the reality that Rudy Giuliani has shown zero results from his big state strategy but fully intends to campaign heavy this week and was before Florida voters even as the votes were being counted in South Carolina some of the intrinsic dynamics of the GOP horse-race could still hit a bump or two.
What is refreshing, whether it's considered pandering or not, is that the voters in these early states have consistently rewarded the right message. Regardless of Romney's or McCain's previously held positions - they now lead the delegate count for the GOP because of messaging that was designed to hit the national security, anti-illegal-immigration, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life, permanent tax cut voters that constitute the base.
So much of the race ahead will morph as the economic troubles continue to emerge. McCain's flip-flopping on tax reductions, border security, and his continued hostility toward protecting the institution of marriage will yet haunt true republican voters participating in true republican primaries.
Saturday night, McCain was quick to flaunt that no one has gone on to be the nominee and not won South Carolina.
But the truth is - it is Romney who has the power of a campaign strategy that has doubled up the number of delegates secured by the rest of the GOP class of 2008.
What it all means is that the GOP might ultimately see a two-man race. One who has been accused of flip-flopping when he was still serving as Governor of Massachusetts, or one who flat out did change his position to pander to voters who had previously written him off.
Both of whom still have significant struggles against Obama or Hillary, or worse yet - both!
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