Romney Hopes for a Comeback

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LM Otero / AP

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney

There had to be a metaphor somewhere — it was all too symbolic: Mitt Romney, the often-hyped Massachusetts governor turned presidential candidate, was watching the also-hyped New England Patriots as they approached the apparent verge of Super Bowl victory Sunday, just two days before the biggest election of Romney's life, Super Tuesday, when 21 states would shape the fate of his White House dreams.

A couple of minutes remained in the fourth quarter, with the Pats up by four and the New York Giants driving. Romney stood alone, without a tie, in a starched white shirt and Super Bowl cap before dozens of reporters with boom mics that kept getting in the way of the hotel lobby TV. One way or another, football history was being made, for sure. But Romney was surrounded by political scribes, not sports reporters. One of them asked, Do you see a metaphor for your campaign in the game?

"No," he responded, with a cautious smile. "But I will tell you when the game is over. I may change my mind then."

For the calculating Romney, there were just too many variables at play. If his campaign was represented by the Pats, and they blew it, then he could too. If his campaign was the New York Giants, the underdogs trying to make a last-minute comeback, then he had betrayed his adopted state and again opened himself up to loser status, not to mention further charges of flip-flopping. And then there was the fundamental nature of football, where a fumble can swing a season, where two-minute drills create dynasties, and missed field goals end careers. There was only one safe route to go. "No metaphor," he said again.

But then maybe that was the metaphor right there — no one knew what was going to happen. Like a football play, Republican politics in these final days before Tuesday's vote has been a chaos of flying bodies and last-minute audibles. Romney woke up in Nashville Monday, had lunch in Atlanta, refueled in Oklahoma, and then spoke at dusk in Long Beach, California. He slept on the redeye back to West Virginia, where his schedule called for about three hours in a hotel Tuesday morning before he had to speak again to another cheering crowd. His chief rival and confirmed nemesis, John McCain, toured Romney's backyard in Boston, before heading on to New York, New Jersey, then to California and, finally, Arizona. Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, had retreated to an evangelical southern strategy in states like Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee.

If you got up from the couch for another beer, you were certain to miss a key play or substitution. A new poll in California, for instance, that showed Romney pulling ahead. Or another press conference in which McCain called out his chief rival as a big spender without backbone. Or the stump speech at Georgia Tech, where Romney told everyone that McCain would collapse the "house that Reagan built." Or a supporter, like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who blurted out at a Nashville pancake place that Republican "bigwigs" were "lining up like lemmings" behind McCain. Or another endorsement. Or another television ad buy. Or another press conference, a handshake, a chanting crowd, a robocall, a photo op, a leaflet drop.

As in the Super Bowl, the odds makers have a clear favorite, McCain, who is riding a double-digit lead in national polls and significant Mac-mentum coming out of his win in Florida. He also benefits from Huckabee, a distant challenger who is far more likely to bleed conservative voters away from Romney than the more independent McCain. But unlike the Super Bowl, the Republican nomination has about fifteen different time clocks and ways of keeping score. There are caucuses and primaries, winner-take-all states and states that portion delegates by congressional district. "I don't know which states I will get," Romney said at a sports bar in St. Louis Sunday, as the Super Bowl started. "I don't know how many delegates I will get. But I will get a lot."

Romney has cleared his schedule for Wednesday, the day after the elections, to collapse in exhaustion and consider his next move. Then on Thursday, both Romney and McCain are scheduled to address the same audience of thousands of movement conservatives in Washington.

For the moment, Romney is still playing it safe, carefully avoiding any hard-and-fast predictions that could paint him into a corner, as he runs his body to a breaking point. "This is the Super Bowl of politics," he said Sunday in St. Louis of the coming election day. "And for old guys like me, politics is kind of sport."