Mitt and Ann Romney, smiling after primary wins on Super Tuesday.
Getty Images
Mitt and Ann Romney, smiling after primary wins on Super Tuesday.

Story highlights

David Gergen: Mitt Romney is following the Woody Hayes school of offense

He says the former governor is grinding out victories in a methodical way

Gergen: Slowed primary calendar lowered perception of Romney's success

President Obama increasingly is timing events to coincide with GOP primaries, Gergen says

Editor’s Note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen

CNN —  

Some footnotes to Super Tuesday after a night that never ended:

– Mitt Romney’s narrow victory in Ohio inevitably brought back memories of Woody Hayes, fabled football coach at The Ohio State.

For years, Buckeye teams methodically ground out victories with an offense affectionately called “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Few long passes or acrobatics – just keep slogging and adding a few more points on the board.

In politics, it is now Romney who has embraced the Woody Hayes offense. Time and again, he wins when he has to – New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan, Ohio – but he never does it with decisive flair. Each victory is achieved methodically and tactically, relying on a superior organization and lots of money. As he said after Michigan, he doesn’t win by a lot but he wins by enough.

David Gergen
Tom Fitzsimmons
David Gergen

And so, he comes out of Super Tuesday continuing his long march toward the nomination. It isn’t pretty, but he has won more states and more delegates than the rest of the field combined. While one can still imagine him losing, it is difficult to see any one of his rivals winning.

– Why is Romney having such a hard time “sealing the deal” (a favorite catch phrase of the season)?

It has been clear all along that he has trouble connecting with most folks. Some politicians are naturals (think Bill Clinton). Romney is among the “un-naturals” – people who have scored successes in fields like business but can’t easily transfer those skills into politics (think Lee Iacocca).

But there are a host of other factors bedeviling him, too. One of the most powerful is that the GOP is no longer his father’s party. Moderate conservatives seeking the party’s nomination now face purity tests that force them to move far right or stay off the field. It is not clear whether a Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford or George H.W. Bush could be nominated by today’s Republicans. Even Ronald Reagan would be heavily attacked over his California record on taxes and abortion.

Throw in the fact that Romney is Mormon and one can see why the hills are steep for him.

Then, too, the rules have changed for the race. As Elaine Kamarck of the Kennedy School points out in the Wall Street Journal today, GOP leaders intentionally made this a long, long race: By this time four years ago, 80% of the GOP delegates had been selected versus 13% this year. (Will that decision go down as one of the worst?)

Ironically, the way the Supreme Court opened the door to Super PACs has first bitten the Republicans, not the Democrats. Would Newt Gingrich still be in the race without Sheldon Adelson? Rick Santorum without Foster Friess? One wonders if billionaires will soon treat politicians like race horses – choose a promising one, train him up and finance his run for the roses.

On Super Tuesday, Romney also had some bad luck. For reasons that are not entirely clear, major metropolitan areas in Ohio where Romney was strong – Cincinnati and Cleveland are key examples – tallied their votes very late in the evening while rural areas where Santorum was strong sent their results in early.

As a result, millions of Americans went to bed thinking that Santorum had probably won Ohio. Just as importantly, with Santorum ahead, the media narrative during prime time focused to a considerable degree on Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate. Only after midnight when Romney pulled ahead in Ohio did the story line change. (Point of pride for CNNers – CNN got there first with Romney’s victory because it had reporters on the ground like Dana Bash.) Think how different interpretations would have been last night had Ohio’s big cities reported early.

In a parallel way, the order of voting nationwide has helped Santorum and Gingrich. Think how much more powerful Romney would seem if New York and California had voted early on in the primary process.

– Coming off Ohio, yet another political figure has surely catapulted high onto Romney’s dream list of possible vice presidents: Sen. Rob Portman.

The first term Republican threw himself into the Ohio fight and deserves enormous credit for the 20-point win Romney racked up in Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati.

Portman is not well-known yet around the country but he commands widespread respect within Republican circles as a highly capable and promising leader. A former Congressman from Cincinnati, he was tapped by President George W. Bush to serve as both his trade representative and budget director.

If nominated, Romney may well need Portman on the ticket to win Ohio, a crucial state. But then again, he may need Sen. Marco Rubio on the ticket to wrap up Florida and enhance his appeal to Hispanics and others. Maybe he will want two running mates.

– An ever increasing presence in the Republican race is President Barack Obama.

Three times in recent weeks, Obama has intervened – giving a rousing talk to the UAW on the day of the Michigan primary, calling Sandra Fluke during the Rush Limbaugh controversy, and holding a rare press conference on Super Tuesday.

While partisans differ on how effective Obama was (I thought on balance, Obama helped himself), it is clear that the president will be a nimble opponent for any Republican. For Mitt Romney, coming out of Ohio, it is also clear that he may need more than three yards and a cloud of dust to beat Obama. If he grinds his way to the nomination, Romney will be moving up from college ball to the NFL.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.