South Carolina's Republican primary is looking like a last stand for the anti-Mitt Romney forces. And it's not likely to leave much room for candidates other than Mitt Romney to remain standing.
Romney has benefitted greatly from forces outside of his control. He stands on the edge of clinching the Republican presidential nomination, both because of his party's newfound focus, and because of an utter lack of focus in other areas where the GOP has traditionally derived strength.
The new focus that Romney benefits from is the intense attention being paid to the economy in the Obama era. That ordering of priorities - the economy was the No. 1 issue for six in 10 GOP primary voters in New Hampshire, where Romney romped last week - has played into Romney's greatest strengths as a business leader and former governor.
The lack of focus comes from the social conservative wing of the party. The inability of the party's evangelical leaders to settle on a consensus choice to oppose Romney has fractured the opposition he faces, playing down the former Massachusetts governor's greatest weaknesses.
In another stroke of luck, the calculations of several of Romney's main rivals have even prevented his main weaknesses from coming to the fore in the heat of the campaign.
Romney has spent the last week fending off charges from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry regarding his business record, not his inconsistencies on social issues. That's rallied leaders of the conservative movement to Romney's side more than anything he was equipped to say or do himself.
Thus Romney rides into the week of the South Carolina primary in a powerful, if not quite unstoppable, position. Having won the first two voting states, he stands a real chance of an early-state sweep, and is better positioned than any of his rivals to cope with stumbles in South Carolina, Florida, or beyond.
Since the Palmetto State debuted its "first in the South" Republican primary in 1980, the winner has gone on to the nomination every time. No non-incumbent Republican has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire, much less the first three states to weigh in on the process. Polls suggest Romney is in a strong position to do just that.
That's the backdrop for this weekend's move by a group of prominent social conservatives to throw their support behind Rick Santorum. One prominent attendee at the meeting promised "activity" on behalf of Santorum in advance of Saturday's primary in South Carolina, but the quasi-endorsement doesn't seem likely to change the campaign's fundamentals.
The move is both too late and too tepid to be likely to move the needle away from Romney. More importantly, the anti-Romney opposition forces remain too disparate to unite behind a single candidacy.
Santorum, Perry, and Gingrich are all banking on South Carolina's evangelicals to boost them over the Mormon Romney. But there aren't enough of them to go around when split three ways; just ask Romney and the other would-be 2008 nominees who chopped up the vote and gave the state to Sen. John McCain four years ago.
Add to that the fact that Romney actually received the votes of more self-described evangelicals in New Hampshire than any of his rivals, and the strength of Romney's position starts to come into focus.
Only Romney and Ron Paul are certain of moving beyond South Carolina with viable presidential campaigns. Romney would gladly take Paul as a rival all the way to the Republican National Convention, since Paul's foreign-policy views remain hugely problematic for him actually challenging for the nomination.
And, as the campaign broadens and goes national with Super Tuesday March 6, only Romney and Paul have the resources and organization to compete on multiple fronts and on multiple levels.
Virtually every candidate not named Romney entered the election cycle with a strategy of becoming the anti-Romney candidate. But it turns out there may not be one, at least until the general election.