SAN DIEGO -- There is a question that is probably nagging at many Republicans right about now.
It goes like this: If it's true -- as the GOP establishment, a slew of elected Republican officials, and the mainstream media have been trying to convince conservative voters -- that Mitt Romney stands the best chance of winning the general election, then why can't he nail down his party's nomination?
What hope does Romney have of defeating Barack Obama -- a tough campaigner -- if he can't shut down the presidential bids of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul?
Romney had the chance on Super Tuesday, and he could have done so by racking up an unexpected victory somewhere or by running the board and winning decisively in most of the 10 states that held primaries or caucuses that day.
Yet, the GOP front-runner couldn't close the deal. And, for anyone who has followed this Republican primary contest closely, it was no surprise. Listen to what GOP voters are saying in exit polls and you'll see: Their opinion of Romney hasn't improved much since the Iowa caucuses. A significant slice of Republican voters still finds it difficult to like him, trust him, believe him or relate to him.
Oh, is that all?
On Super Tuesday, Romney won a couple of states that he had in the bag: his home state of Massachusetts and neighboring Vermont. He also won in Virginia, but it was a hollow victory since neither Santorum nor Gingrich was on the ballot and 40 percent of the vote went to Paul. The bright spot was Ohio, an important victory to be sure but also one that Romney was barely able to eke out against Santorum despite the fact he outspent him.
In another twist, Romney does best in the parts of the country that are all but certain to go Democratic in the general election -- i.e., the Northeast. And he does worse in those regions that Republicans absolutely have to win in November, such as the South and the Midwest.
What must it feel like to be Romney? Even when he wins, he loses. Even when he has what looks like a good night, it turns out to be a bad one. And even as the front-runner, it must feel as if someone is always on his heels.
Ironically, that feeling is only likely to intensify should Romney win the nomination. Here's why: Up to now, the former governor seems to be following the preferred strategy of campaigning to his party's right flank in order to win the primary. The next part of the strategy is to sprint back to the middle during the general. If Romney does this, it'll finally cook his goose with many conservatives. They already think he's too far to the left. As far as this bunch is concerned, if Romney moves any farther left, he'll be comparable to Obama. And conservatives might not turn out on behalf of someone like that in November.
It's no wonder that conservatives have doubts about Romney, and that -- according to polls -- a majority of the Republican base prefers someone else. Contrary to the argument that he would be the strongest candidate to face off against Obama, more and more he seems like he is actually among the weakest.
Despite Romney's lead in the delegate count, he still needs to persuade a lot of Republicans that his candidacy is worth supporting. And how is the Romney campaign doing this? By resorting to, of all things, math. The day after Super Tuesday, the campaign released a memo arguing that -- just looking at the numbers -- it is now nearly impossible for any of Romney's opponents to beat him to the nomination.
As of Thursday, according to CNN, Romney had 429 delegates, compared with 169 for Santorum, 118 for Gingrich and 67 for Paul. At the Republican National Convention this summer, a candidate will need 1,144 delegates to secure the presidential nomination.
Thus, Team Romney assures us, their candidate is sure to get the nomination because the math is on their side.
Are we inspired yet?
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben(at symbol)rubennavarrette.comCopyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group