By Michael Smerconish
Let me finish tonight with this: With Mitt Romney now in control of the 2012 GOP nomination, I'm already looking into my 2016 crystal ball.
I see the likes of Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, John Thune, maybe Sarah Palin. They're the "usual suspects" for 2016 assuming Mitt Romney loses to Barack Obama, which current polls suggest will be the case. I don't believe the race is over, but if Romney loses, I can already hear Santorum, standing in an Iowa cornfield and telling people, "I told you so." Just last month he told Wisconsin voters that Romney was the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama. All he'll need to do is change the tense of many speeches he just delivered and use them again.
Then Santorum will drill down on a parallel between 2012 and 1976 when a moderate Gerald Ford won the nomination over a more conservative Ronald Reagan, but lost the general election, and that he is the proper heir to the Reagan throne.
Of course, an alternative view will be that the GOP went off the rails with religious and social litmus tests in the 2012 primary season, and its conservative candidates cannibalized moderates, who then split the right-wing vote between the likes of Santorum, Gingrich, Bachmann and Cain, and allowed the most liberal of the field to survive the nomination process.
And make no mistake, Romney did not win it. He survived it. He was the tortoise in a race that had no hares.
But history could repeat itself, because if present trends continue, the Republican Party will be even more conservative in 2016. The Party has done nothing to broaden its tent and registration figures document the resulting growth of Independents. There will be Santorum, fresh from a lucrative tour on the speaker's circuit and a stint on Fox News, running again, facing the likes of Ryan and Rubio, etc. They'll divide the evangelical vote and they'll create an opening for anyone who can cobble together whatever GOP independent thinkers never got the memo and stayed in the party. So who'll benefit? Anyone with less than a doctrinaire view of the world. The trouble is that there are few Republicans with national stature who are not ideologues. Jeb Bush, maybe, but, more likely, Chris Christie, who could be on the heels of an unsuccessful bid as Mitt Romney's VP candidate. Last September, New York Magazine offered "five things conservative voters would hate about Chris Christie." The list included immigration reform, gun control and the view that "climate change is real." A list like that will make him the anomaly in a crowded conservative field, which is a strategic advantage if the ideologues again split the primary vote. The 2016 GOP nominee: Chris Christie.
Call me a soothsayer, or remind me to eat some crow.