THE fun's gone out of the race for the Republican nomination. Barring something unforeseeable, Mitt Romney's too far ahead to catch. Newt Gingrich's vote collapsed in Illinois last week, and he finished fourth behind the libertarian Ron Paul.
The Mormon Romney didn't just beat his nearest rival, Roman Catholic Rick Santorum, on Tuesday; among Catholic voters, he won decisively. Romney's core supporters -- suburban, prosperous and moderate -- are staying loyal. But while Santorum still leads with evangelicals, the very conservative and the less educated, he is not making inroads elsewhere.
There was a bit of light relief when, post-Illinois, Romney's communications director, of all people, produced a mega gaffe. Asked on CNN if he was worried that to win the nomination Romney might be pushed so far to the right that he would alienate moderates, Eric Fehrnstrom presumably forgot he was on TV and mused: "Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." This enabled Santorum and Gingrich to wave Etch A Sketches to emphasise what true conservatives they were and what a flip-flopper is Romney.
But they're whistling in the wind. The debate is about why the three other contenders don't quit and back Romney. Gingrich is out of money and will probably be gone soon, especially if promised a big job. The same could shortly be true of Santorum. And Ron Paul -- who is pushing ideas rather than seriously competing -- is friendly with Romney and will do him no harm.
Barack Obama is hotly tipped to easily win the presidential election. But it's not all over yet. Most Americans hate debt and they worry that their president seems relaxed about it. As David Harsanyi, a conservative commentator, put it last week: "The national debt has increased more during President Obama's three years of judicious rule than it did during eight years of a reckless George W Bush. Whereas Obama once claimed that Bush deficits were 'irresponsible' and even 'unpatriotic', his latest budget projected a deficit of about $1.3trn, followed by a $901bn deficit and then ones remaining in the hundreds of billions for 10 years after that -- or until some new emergency needs additional spending."
And on many grounds, when it comes to the actual presidential election, Obama is easily as vulnerable as Romney to accusations of flip-flopping. After his Illinois victory, Romney made a speech that for once hit the buttons of the right and the centre. Targeting Obama rather than Republican contenders, he highlighted obvious weaknesses and played to his own genuine strengths. The audience loved it. From the transcript:
"For 25 years, I lived and breathed business and the economy and jobs. I had successes and failures. But each step of the way, I learned a little bit more about what it is that makes our American system so powerful. You can't learn that teaching constitutional law at University of Chicago, all right?"
"You can't even learn that as a community organiser.
"The simple truth is that this president doesn't understand the genius of America's economy or the secret of the American success story. The American economy is fuelled by freedom."
There were other telling thrusts for a nation that likes liberty and small government and is preoccupied with job creation: "We once led the world in manufacturing and exports, investment. Today, we lead the world in lawsuits. You know, when we replace a law professor with a conservative businessman as president, that's going to end."
Conrad Black, in his last few months in jail, is continuing the process of reinventing himself as a political commentator. He believes Obama could be beaten by any half-way decent opponent because of his fiscal incontinence and his perceived timidity in dealing with nasty foreigners.
Writing of Obama and Romney the other day, Black said: "Either candidate could still produce a real programme of deficit reduction, but the president could do something about it and give sensible people a comfort level that he was finally taking the matter seriously. Failing that, the president's best chance could be bombing Iran. He should have done it already; it is getting late and could look hokey. There is still no sign that he will act, but the terrors of a fragile incumbency could incite unsuspected boldness."
He could be right on this. Because he is a Democrat, Obama escaped liberal censure for ordering the killing of bin Laden and the continuing use of lethal drones on suspected militants in Pakistan. Republicans are fearful that a nuclear Iran might wipe out Israel and fatally destabilise the Middle East. With the election looming, Obama could indeed be thinking bold.