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Are media premature in declaring Romney GOP nominee?

Like most media observers of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, I figure that Mitt Romney has the prize in the bag — barring some highly unlikely development that upsets all the political applecarts.

More to the point, I just don’t see how any of Romney’s remaining rivals — Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul — can suddenly come on like Seabiscuit to close the gap and win the race. Gingrich and Paul face utterly hopeless odds, and there’s not much more chance that Santorum’s brand of sanctimonious conservatism will turn things around for him in the remaining GOP primaries.

But Walter Shapiro, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, SAYS the media (or the “press,” as he quaintly calls them) are jumping the proverbial gun:

Staring at the widely used Associated Press delegate scoreboard, which shows Romney ahead of Santorum by more than a two-to-one margin, it is easy to accept the consensus judgment that it’s Mitt by a mile. But the fine print explaining the AP’s methodology reveals that these numbers (Romney 568, Santorum 273) include unpledged delegates and assume that final caucus-state allocations will reflect the initial candidate preference votes. The truth is that the GOP’s national delegate rules are filled with strange loopholes and are, in some instances, contradictory. That is why I prefer to rely on the more cautious delegate calculations by Davidson College political science professor Josh Putnam on his website, Frontloading HQ. Putnam’s numbers have Romney less than halfway to nomination (504 delegates), although Santorum lags even further behind (195 delegates).

My point is not to deny Romney’s obvious lead, but to add the skeptical note that things can go wrong for a front-runner when he is still 640 votes short of the nomination. Moreover, Jeff Greenfield (a friend and a fellow columnist for Yahoo! News) recently pointed out that if Santorum is still scrapping for the nomination in Tampa, he could challenge the winner-take-all rules that gave Romney all 79 delegates from the Florida and Arizona primaries. GOP convention delegates are free agents when it comes to balloting on rules questions and a state cannot vote on challenges to its own delegation. The devil in all these details: Romney would have to come to Tampa with close to 1,200 votes to have full control of the convention.

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