It was a bad night for Mitt Romney.
Don't kid yourself, Romney supporters. The mixed vote on Super Tuesday is a profound setback for the fragile front-runner.
I spoke on Tuesday afternoon with a dear friend who is a key Romney supporter. The point of the call was to talk to me about consolidating the conservative support for Romney after Super Tuesday.
The premise was that Rick Santorum would lose Tennessee, Ohio and North Dakota, and as a good man -- and a tired candidate -- would be about to drop out of the race Wednesday morning.
Wow, did Team Romney get that wrong.
Rick Santorum bested Romney in Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Dakota.
Ohio, the main recipient of Team Romney's anti-Santorum carpet bombing, was too close to call for most of the night; Romney's money and organizational advantage did buy him the narrowest of victories there, but not much love.
Romney is oddly emerging as a regional candidate -- he runs well in states with strong LDS populations and in the Northeast. He has problems in the South and the Midwest and with the core of the Republican Party.
"Romneycare is the story in this election," Brit Hume said in the wee hours of Fox News coverage, as Super Tuesday slipped into Super Wednesday with Ohio still undecided. Those in Ohio who decided whom to vote for the day of the election went for Santorum. Hume suggested that new information that Romney supported a federal mandate in health care was part of the reason.
Romney hasn't come clean; he has massaged and spun. His story on mandates (like his story on abortion) just doesn't ring true or make sense.
Romneycare "continues to dog him and explains his weakness with conservative voters," said Hume.
Listen, if Romney is the nominee, I will support him. But the profound strength of the anti-Romney vote was vividly on display last night.
Let's put Santorum (whom I've endorsed) to the side for a moment. Look at the vote in Virginia, where only Romney and the nowhere-man candidate Ron Paul were on the ballot. With virtually no good options, 41 percent of Virginian voters still rejected Romney.
Virginia, where the GOP is home for a large number of military voters, is a key swing state. Romney is a very weak candidate if he cannot pull away from Paul more convincingly in a state like Virginia.
On display in every election, whether or not pundits are willing to recognize it, is the fact the GOP voters do not like Romney. They don't hate him -- they just don't like him very much.
The core of the conservative movement does not want to vote for this guy. Romney is good-looking, reasonably eloquent, has adopted almost every conservative position imaginable, and has mega-advantages in terms of money and organization.
But outspending Santorum by at least 4-to-1 or more in Ohio, Romeny just can't put the guy away.
As the National Journal reported after Romney's earlier narrow win in his self-described home state of Michigan, Romney keeps winning "ugly."
"In Michigan, it was less of a resounding victory for Romney than a near-miss of a humiliating defeat at the hands of a toppled senator from Pennsylvania who is to the right of the Republican mainstream and running a seat-of-his-pants campaign. And that was the easy part," it said.
As Republican consultant John Weaver put it after the Romney win in Michigan: "If Romney wins the nomination, it will be because he dragged the base kicking and screaming."
That's no way to win an election.
Santorum has emerged as the strongest of the non-Romneys, still standing after every mega-buck punch Romney throws because he has a genuine base of support among actual voters: tea partiers and social conservatives who will turn out and vote for him no matter what Romney does.
If Newt Gingrich would drop out, Santorum would win in a cakewalk, despite all Romney's money and organization. But Gingrich will not drop out, I predict, because Newt is really all about Newt.
Support Mitt Romney if you think he's the best candidate in this election. But the argument that he is somehow the most electable candidate we have has taken a hit in almost every election we have seen, including this week's Super Tuesday.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.