Two days after Super Tuesday, Republicans all but settled on a presidential nominee while the Democrats faced the possibility of choosing one the old-fashioned way - in the proverbial smoke-filled back room.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suspended his campaign Thursday, effectively handing the nomination to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is on the verge of completing one of the nation's more memorable political comebacks.
McCain has befuddled pundits and arch-rightwing talk-radiomeisters alike by turning a campaign that looked mortally wounded seven months ago into a steamroller. His strong showing Tuesday took him to 707 pledged delegates - 60 percent of the 1,191 needed to clinch the nomination. Romney was a distant second with 295.
In retiring his campaign, Romney may have positioned himself to be the GOP standard bearer in 2012. And make no mistake. While the current election is still three-quarters of a year away, 2012 is on a lot of people's minds already.
In his speech Thursday, Romney tried to make it clear he was placing the country and the Republican Party ahead of his own ambitions. "If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror," Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
A more cynical view might be that Romney, who reportedly shoveled $40 million of his own money into his campaign (that works out to about $135,600 per delegate so far), realized he wasn't getting much of a return on his investment. That no doubt played into his decision, but it also presented him with a chance to help push the 71-year-old McCain into the White House over the much younger Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. McCain, if he wins, may not be a viable candidate for a second term at 75, so Romney, who will be remembered for stepping aside so unselfishly for the greater good of defeating the Democratic nominee, could parlay that party loyalty into a party nomination.
Across the aisle, Clinton and Obama are running neck and neck, though Obama seems to be pulling ahead in the all-important contribution category. The Democratic nominee will need 2,025 delegate votes to win. Clinton has 823 committed delegates so far, with Obama close behind at 741.
In Vegas, that's too close to call.
Things may shake out in favor of one candidate, but it is conceivable that both Clinton and Obama could arrive at the Democratic convention within striking distance of the nomination, which could then be decided in unconventional ways.
For instance, one of the candidates might push to have delegates from Michigan and Florida seated. Those states were disenfranchised by their fellow Democrats for violating party rules with early primaries. Between them, the states would have 366 uncommitted delegates up for grabs.
Then, there are the superdelegates - delegates from each state who are essentially free agents. Not bound by the vote in their respective states, they are able to commit to whichever candidate they choose.
They're unlikely to be filled with cigar smoke in these more health conscious times, but the back rooms at the convention could be the place where the most important politicking of the Democratic campaign takes place.