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Is Mitt Romney pondering The End?

February 4, 2008 |  6:02 am

As his chartered 737 jet flew high over the snowy prairies this weekend, Mitt Romney did something he hardly ever does.

He walked from the first-class section of the plane where candidates and senior staff typically sit on these seemingly endless campaign flights back into the messy economy section where the press corps covering the candidate resides. In fact, he did it several times.

Romney was, of course, immediately surrounded by reporters like The Times' Seema Mehta with notebooks and tape recorders, ready to....

absorb his every word. And the candidate just chatted for a while. Kind of shared his thoughts. Answered some questions.

Now, that may seem insignificant. But on a presidential campaign, especially one where the buttoned-down candidate very rarely chooses to mingle like that, nothing happens by chance.

Romney's campaign is in trouble. Deep trouble. He knows it. His staff knows it. And so does his chief rival Sen. John McCain, who's gonna try to put Romney away with a bunch of big wins this Super Tuesday, when about half of the GOP delegates necessary for the nomination are chosen. After losing Iowa, suddenly opening up to the press worked for the wounded Sen. Hillary Clinton just before her big New Hampshire win.

Despite all the grim economic news that should be dominating the campaign, benefiting millionaire businessman Romney, the economy expert, as it did for his big Michigan win, McCain has skillfully changed the main subject to the Iraq war, his area of expertise and prominence.

At the GOP debate the other night McCain got Romney into a back-and-forth and back-and-forth about whether Romney once said he actually favored a timed troop withdrawal or not. As if such parsing really matters.

It was beautiful politics, like a two-bank shot in pool. He got Romney down and dirty denying he ever had proposed a withdrawal and, not accidentally, reminding people of the former governor's reputation for flip-flops. And simultaneously reminding Republicans of McCain's military experience and courage in standing by the military surge, now succeeding. And also wasting Romney's valuable talking time off of his own messages. 

The fact is, in a few days Romney's campaign could be dead. Over. Done. After raising $90 million -- $35.5 million of it his own dough -- and spending most of that, the former Massachusetts governor with the 38-year marriage and beautiful all-American family has very little politically to show for it.

Wins in Nevada, Wyoming, Maine, Michigan, three of them minor. Defeats in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, all of them major. And he lost almost 24 hours attending the Saturday Salt Lake City funeral of the Mormon church's president.

Romney said some hopeful things during his airplane chats. Conservative pundits and leaders, who've been all over the place like Cub Scouts when the pack leader leaves the room, are starting to jell behind Romney as the best conservative alternative to McCain. It may be too little too late. And Mike Huckabee is still around to split the true conservative vote and help McCain.

But Romney sounded hopeful. “I don’t think our party wants to take as dramatic a departure from the house that Reagan built as that which Sen. McCain represents,” he said.

Romney's overall tone in those airplane chats did not sound like someone anticipating a resounding victory. He did decide to squeeze in one more visit to California, tonight in Long Beach. But Romney didn't predict anything. Instead he said he would continue his campaign beyond Feb. 5, which is pretty much what a candidate has to say up until Feb. 6.

"Looking at the numbers of delegates and the numbers of states," Romney said, "I don’t think somebody is going to walk away with the needed numbers. So it goes on well beyond Tuesday. I haven’t looked thoroughly at a calendar beyond Tuesday, but I know there is one. I intend to keep on battling. That’s my plan." Remember that word "plan."

And think about what he said. You're running a national campaign for a year and you say you intend to keep on doing so, but you haven't thought thoroughly about Wednesday? Sounds an awful lot like someone who thinks something decisive will happen Tuesday.

Wasn't it John Edwards on the Democratic side who just the other day vowed to campaign right up to the summer convention, shortly before he flew to New Orleans and quit? Or Rudy Giuliani vowing last Monday to attend Wednesday's GOP debate no matter the Tuesday Florida results? Giuliani did attend the debate but not to debate, just to quit and endorse his pal McCain.

The day after his disappointing loss in Florida Romney said he got $374,000 in online contributions compared with the usual day's take of $50,000, which sounds encouraging. In answer to a question Romney said he and his wife Ann had set a maximum limit to the personal funds they'd contribute to his campaign, though he naturally declined to reveal that sum.

Then Romney revealed, after all, that he had thought a little about the calendar after Super Tuesday. He's scheduled a complete campaign staff and budget review for Wednesday. He could be letting some people go, not a hopeful sign for the savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics.

"We had a big staff in Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire," he explained. "That’s a much larger staff than you have as you go on to these subsequent primaries. So who are the people needed, where are we going to need them, what’s the campaign budget going to look like?”

At a news conference after landing in Minneapolis, Romney was asked about that statement. "We don't have any plans to change our staff size," he said. "Plans" again.

That was probably true when he said it, which was Saturday. We'll see what the "plans" are come Wednesday.

--Andrew Malcolm