Phoenix, Ariz. — Since John McCain’s win in Florida, the conventional wisdom has been that he has nearly locked up the Republican presidential nomination. But now, just hours before Super Tuesday voting begins, a new factor has entered the equation: California. Polls, both public and those taken privately by the Romney campaign, show Mitt Romney with unexpected strength in the nation’s biggest state, sending both Romney and McCain rushing to make unscheduled stops there on Monday night and Tuesday. If Romney could win California, people in both campaigns say, the race could go on for several more weeks. And if that happens, conservatives who are trying to organize to stop McCain would have more time to work. At this late moment, California means everything.
A Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll, finished Sunday, shows Romney leading McCain in California, 40 percent to 32 percent. A Rasmussen poll, finished Saturday, shows the two candidates tied at 38 percent. Other polls, taken before February first, showed McCain in the lead, sometimes by a substantial margin…
“What’s happening is like what happened in Maine. When it’s down to two men, and Republican voters look at the two men and see where they stand on the issues, with the economy becoming the most important thing, the decision gets easier and easier.”
But what, exactly, is the message? “The question in my mind is whether this is the beginning of the coalescing of the conservative movement against McCain, or whether it is something less than that,” the first Romney aide tells me. “Is he going forward on the basis of a conservative wave, although at the 11th hour and 59th minute?” If Romney believes there is such a conservative wave, he will certainly keep on.
And if Romney does keep on — yet another aide tells me “We’re already looking at February 9, February 12, and February 15” — that will give McCain’s opponents in the conservative world more time to press their case. “There is an increasing sense of urgency among conservatives that has led them to rally toward Romney, in that he would be a better standard bearer for the party on issues that are important to conservatives,” the aide says.