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Nominations come into focus, maybe

Mitt Romney's makeover may have already doomed his nomination bid, but Barack Obama still has a shot if he can bolster his appeal among white voters.
/ Source: National Journal

Although the presidential nominations certainly aren't settled, there's much more clarity in the contests than existed in the days surrounding the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

That was truly a disorienting time, with too many conflicting signals to even come up with a plausible hypothesis for what was going on.

But today, as Florida votes in its presidential primary, we can make some sense out of things.

Clearly, 's stock is up. In both national and state polling, his support and favorable ratings among Republicans are on the rise.

might be running roughly even with McCain in Florida, but nationally and in most other states, he is not keeping up with the Arizona senator and does not enjoy the same momentum.

The other surviving GOP contenders, Rudy Giuliani and , are trying desperately to hang on for dear life.

To be sure, there's considerable resistance to McCain among many staunch conservatives who have long doubted he is truly one of them. And some members of the party establishment have been irritated by his frequent exploits as a "maverick."

But the alternatives are looking less and less attractive every day, and there seems to be a growing, albeit begrudging, admission among longtime McCain detractors that he may be the only Republican who can beat or .

Romney still has his considerable personal financial fortune to draw on, and the Florida primary is certainly neck-and-neck. The question remains, however, whether Romney could continue spending through the Feb. 5 array of primaries at the high levels necessary for him to capitalize on a Florida win.

Clearly the Romney strategy is to stay alive long enough to get down to a two-way contest with McCain. From there, he can capitalize on the Arizonan's many enemies within the party, or hope that there's a ceiling on McCain's support and force a mistake.

If that happens, the former Massachusetts governor will have the opportunity to pounce. But McCain has made very few mistakes during this campaign, and even many of his critics are starting to come around.

Romney has badly damaged his own personal franchise, and his perceived strengths have faded. At one time, he projected the image of the competent manager -- someone who was sharp, analytical and perhaps the perfect fit to fix an ailing economy. But he's increasingly viewed as a world-class panderer, and his stock has fallen.

Instead of branding himself as the earnest problem-solver, he has attempted to promote the idea that he is the most conservative candidate in the race, which was neither credible nor particularly convincing. If any candidate this year has soiled his own nest and diminished his own substantial potential, it is Romney.

The Romney of a year ago might well have won the nomination; the current one will have a very difficult time doing so.

On the Democratic side, it is coming down to arithmetic; Obama has to change the math if he is going to win his party's presidential nomination.

Since his impressive victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, exit polls show he has not been able to run up big numbers among white voters. Obama garnered about a third of the white vote in New Hampshire and Nevada and about a quarter in South Carolina.

Obama has done well among black voters, winning by overwhelming margins in Nevada and South Carolina. But that won't be enough to offset his deficit among whites. There are also signs that Obama's strong support among blacks might be at least partially offset by fairly substantial support for Clinton among Hispanics.

In Nevada, for example, despite the fact that the heavily Hispanic Culinary Workers Union endorsed Obama, Clinton beat Obama among Hispanics by better than 2-to-1.

There are some indications that a battle might be brewing between blacks and Hispanics over who will be the dominant minority group within the Democratic Party. While Obama generally does better among blacks than Clinton does among Hispanics, it does reduce his support and makes getting a bigger share of the white vote that much more important.

The key now is how much longer will stay in the race. Perhaps more importantly, when does he run out of money and go into a more inactive candidate status? And if and when that happens, where will his support go?

Early on, it might have been assumed that Clinton was the pivot point in this contest. You were either for her or not, and if not, you then chose an alternative. But Obama has become just as strong a personality as Clinton, which can have its downsides.

So it is no longer a given that a white Democrat who decides to abandon Edwards would automatically end up in Obama's column. That's just another wild card in this tough race.