Many voices urge Newt Gingrich, after he failed to win Alabama and Mississippi, to quit the Republican primary and make Rick Santorum the sole conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.
Gingrich refuses. He promises to campaign all the way to Tampa with the objective of denying Romney the nomination and giving himself influence at a contested convention in August. We imagine he will be disappointed, but if he has the political support and personal energy to pull it off, he is justified in making the run.
Gingrich also says that his presence in the race prevents Romney from focusing negative advertising on Santorum. Santorum complains that Gingrich is taking votes away from him, but it could also be true that well-financed negative attacks against Santorum could send votes to Gingrich, which makes Romney less likely to attack.
Santorum should not necessarily conclude that all Gingrich supporters would switch to him. Exit polls still show the majority of primary voters view Romney as the candidate most likely to beat President Barack Obama.
The best thing is to let voters decide who emerges from the primary marathon, rather than shortcut the process.
Former first lady Barbara Bush, a Romney supporter, calls it "the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life."
It has been a confusing race. States award delegates in a mindboggling variety of ways. Some delegates are pledged, and some are not. It's hard to keep score.
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, sees a way to win if Gingrich drops out. Romney thinks he can more easily beat Obama if Santorum drops out. Romney notes that Santorum is so far behind in delegates that he's at the "desperate end of his campaign."
That's not quite the case. Romney does have a majority of the delegates, but not a majority of the popular vote. Romney has 39 percent of Republican votes so far. Santorum has 26 percent and Gingrich has 24 percent. After the Florida vote in late January, Romney had 42 percent, his high point.
Romney's support has not grown, which led Gingrich pollster Kellyanne Conway to observe that "the more Romney wins, the more he looks like a loser."
Most of the states in the early voting were states Obama won in 2008. Among the states won by Republican John McCain, Gingrich at this point leads with 33 percent of the total vote, Romney with 31 percent and Santorum with 28 percent.
Romney needs to find a way to better connect with the Republican base. These independent-minded voters cannot be ordered to back the former governor of Massachusetts for the good of the party. He had respectable showings in Mississippi and Alabama, but there's no hiding from the fact that the balloting so far shows that most Republicans want someone other than Romney.
That could change, but it's not Gingrich's job to bring the process to a tidy end. It's his job to campaign hard and expose his opponents' weaknesses. The former speaker of the House has done that better than most observers expected.
His refusal to quit could have an added benefit of encouraging reform.
As we have urged before, the nation needs a fair system of regional primaries for both major parties. Each section of the country deserves a turn going first. Delegates should be assigned in a way voters understand.
The way things are going, late August in Tampa will be much hotter than we expected.