Mitt Romney's aides often compare their struggle to end the Republican primary to Barack Obama's long slog for delegates in 2008.
But the reality is that Romney is playing a weaker hand. Obama had more delegates, more political momentum, and a clearer path to victory at this point four years ago than Romney does today.
Romney is still the overwhelming favorite, and his campaign trudges on. Even in losing two states, Romney won the most delegates last night, buoyed by a sweep in American Samoa (9 delegates). He'll even win the most delegates in Mississippi because of the endorsement of at least two of the state's three superdelegates.
Overall, Romney won 42 delegates Tuesday night, to Santorum's 38 — a small victory, but a victory where it counts.
Romney, like Obama, has sought to convince the press that the race is truly over. Where Obama aide David Plouffe insisted in a series of conference calls with reporters following Super Tuesday that his candidate had the implacable math on his side, Romney's aides have insisted in memos and private briefings that, as one said, only an "act of God" can stop the former Massachusetts governor.
Plouffe had a stronger case. With two-thirds of the delegates left to allocate, it's still too early to call this contest over.
"So much of the Democratic battle — the delegate-counting portion of it anyway — was waged after about two-thirds of the delegates had been allocated," Davidson College political science professor and delegate-counting expert Josh Putnam, who noted that there is still a small chance Santorum can catch up because of the way the calendar was assembled.
GOP strategist Chip Saltsman, who ran Mike Huckabee's campaign in 2008, sees a "longer and more difficult path — but still a path" to the nomination for the former Pennsylvania senator — but still an opening.
Obama's own delegate counter, Jeff Berman, also said he still sees a narrow path for Santorum.
"There is a path forward for Santorum," he said. "Whether it’s attainable or not is not yet clear."
"If Romney cannot accumulate the magic number of delegates for the nomination, it’s possible that none of the candidates will get there before their national convention," Berman said. "Notwithstanding Romney's early delegate lead, their race remains wide open."
Romney backers point to that 2008 primary as reason for the divisiveness of this year's Republican contest posing little threat to their chances in November. But to make that comparison, Romney supporters must argue that Rick Santorum is a viable candidate for the presidency — a painful concession, that also strains credulity. Hillary Clinton was a leader of her party, the front-runner from the start of the race, and well-funded. Rick Santorum is none of those things, and his general election prospects are decidedly dimmer than Clinton's were at any point in the race.
"It’s hard to say who's playing what role," Saltsman said. "Santorum has grown his campaign organically from the ground up. In 2000, it was McCain, in 2008, it was us, and now in 2012 it’s Santorum. He's perhaps more like Obama than Hillary, because he's winning caucuses."
Romney is also no Obama, capable of firing up grassroots activists with an inspirational speech — Romney doesn't give inspirational speeches. It will take Romney time to rally supporters for November, and every day arguing delegate math is a day not spent making the case for why he would be a better president than Obama.
In the end, though, the bean-counters say Romney will likely grind it out, but his decisive advantages are money and muscle, not math.
"The geography of where [Santorum] has done well thus far and his organization overall does not bode well for his chances," Putnam said.
Romney And Santorum Marginal Delegate Gains By State
Florida: Romney +50
Virginia: Romney +43
Massachusetts: Romney +41
Minnesota: Santorum +37
Idaho: Romney +32
Arizona: Romney +29
Washington: Romney +25
Tennessee: Santorum +15
Ohio: Romney +14
Georgia: Romney +12
Maine: Romney +12
Nevada: Romney +11
Northern Marianas: Romney +9
Guam: Romney +9
American Samoa: Romney +9
Colorado: Santorum +9
Alabama: Santorum +8*
New Hampshire: Romney +7
Vermont: Romney +5
Hawaii: Romney +5*
South Carolina: Romney +2
North Dakota: Santorum +4
Iowa: Santorum +2
Michigan: Romney +2
Alaska: Romney +1
Oklahoma: Santorum +1
Mississippi: Romney +1
*Not all delegates awarded yet.