A sneak attack at the convention, the plan that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are counting on to win the Republican presidential nomination, is far-fetched in the eyes of state party officials who say that Mitt Romney will be nominated even if he goes into the convention with only a plurality of delegates.
Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican National Committee member who remains neutral in the race, said it is a "fantasy" to think that delegates at the convention will coalesce around someone other than Mr. Romney if he holds a big lead over his rivals, but falls shy of securing the 1,144 votes needed to win on a first ballot in Tampa, Fla.
"Better chance that I am going to be the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots next year — and I am 58 and was a mediocre high school quarterback," Mr. Duprey said. "Gov. Romney will win even if he goes in with less than a majority, in my view. I think the primaries have shown that neither Sen. Santorum nor Speaker Gingrich can appeal to independents and moderates, and delegates to the convention will know that."
Robert T. Bennett, a national committeeman from Ohio, likened the strategy to the approach of Don Quixote, the "mad" knight from Spanish literature.
"Santorum and Newt will try to figure out a strategy to stop him," Mr. Bennett said. "I just think they are tilting at windmills."
Mr. Romney's critics have argued that while neither man appears likely to win the nomination outright on a first ballot, denying Mr. Romney an immediate win would begin the deal-making to try to win other candidates' delegates. Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich both argue that they would be the conservative alternative to whom delegates would rally.
On Tuesday, Mr. Gingrich retooled his campaign and cut staff, but said he intends to make a case to delegates at the convention in August.
So far, he has failed to meet the party's eligibility requirement for his name to be put on the first nomination ballot. A candidate must have won a plurality of delegates in at least five states, a threshold only Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum have met.
In the delegate-count battle, Mr. Romney leads with 568 in the latest Associated Press tally — more than double Mr. Santorum's 273. Mr. Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are further behind, with 153 and 50 delegates, respectively.
Mr. Romney also continues to pick up support from high-profile Republicans, including former President George H.W. Bush, who plans to officially endorse him at an event in Houston on Thursday, and his son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who called on the party to rally behind him last week.
The elder Mr. Bush's endorsement follows a CNN poll released this week that found a majority of Republicans would like to see Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Paul drop out of the race, setting up the sort of "mano a mano" scenario that Mr. Santorum has been calling for in the wake of his strong performances on Super Tuesday on March 6 and in recent contests in the Deep South.
Whatever the case, it appears Mr. Romney has the inside track on the 98 delegates up for grabs in next week's winner-take-all contests in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Wisconsin, where the electorate does not have the kind of strong evangelical bent that has helped Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Santorum failed to qualify for the D.C. ballot, forfeiting a shot at 19 delegates.
The race then moves to five contests worth more than 200 delegates in the northeastern part of the country, where Mr. Romney also is thought to be on generally favorable political ground.
As a result, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum have changed their tune, abandoning the notion that they can win the nomination outright, while arguing that they can still win the party's nomination if they force a brokered convention by blocking Mr. Romney from capturing the magic number of delegates needed to be the party's standard-bearer.
John Ryder, a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee, said that while he would not rule out anything, it is "improbable and unlikely" that any of Mr. Romney's competitors can trip him up and pull out a victory on the convention floor.
"They simply haven't demonstrated enough strength or breadth of support to get there," he said. "He is going to have so much momentum and the impetus is going to be so strong to rally around him that I think it is going to be pretty hard to stop unless there is some sort of reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. Well, if we had that, he or she would have already entered the race, and they are not there."
"So," he said, "the likelihood is that that ain't going to happen."
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