JACKSON, Miss. -- Despite a pair of devastating defeats in the Deep South, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney continued his methodical march toward his party's nomination Wednesday, insisting he's not concerned about voters' lack of passion for him because simple math will ensure his victory.
It's now all about the delegates, he says.
Despite his front-runner status, Romney finished third in both Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night, losing ground to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose faith-and-family campaign has excited the party's conservative base in a way Romney never has.
Pointing to the numbers rather than any evidence that the party faithful is finally embracing his candidacy, Romney is trying to convince those who doubt his conservative principles that he is simply the only candidate capable of amassing the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination before the party's August convention in Tampa Bay.
While Romney was raising money in New York Wednesday, campaign aides were spreading the word that Romney remains the inevitable nominee. Despite fresh setbacks in the GOP's most crucial region, the South, Romney added to his delegate count Tuesday with wins in Hawaii and American Samoa, they noted.
"While Rick Santorum is taking a victory lap after Alabama and Mississippi, the fact remains that nothing has changed or advanced his chances of getting the Republican nomination," Romney Political Director Rich Beeson said in a memo released to reporters. "Tuesday's results actually increased Gov. Romney's delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of mathematical elimination."
But a disconnect remains between Romney's delegate math and his political momentum.
While political junkies pore over delegate counts -- Romney has accrued more than twice as many as second-place Santorum -- the public remains largely oblivious to the race's mathematical dynamics.
"Delegates? Who cares about them?" said Jay Wiener, of Jackson, Miss., who voted for Santorum. "I went with who I liked the most. Who follows that mumbo jumbo?"
Still, some analysts say that unless the race's dynamics shift dramatically, Romney's best argument remains that his competitors have little chance of catching him.
"I think it's an important part of messaging; it speaks to the electability argument the Romney camp is making," said Doug Heye, former communications director of the Republican National Committee.
And Romney's third-place finishes in the heart of Dixie Tuesday doesn't necessarily mean those reliably Republican areas won't support him against President Obama in the fall, Heye said.
"That's a primary [election] problem, not a general-election problem," he said. "If Romney's the nominee, he's going to win those states in the fall."
The argument is not all that different from a pitch made by then-Sen. Barack Obama in his 2008 Democratic primary battle against Hillary Clinton, when Clinton supporters were vowing never to support Obama though they ultimately did. For now, Romney is urging patience to party leaders worried that the drawn out race would leave him damaged for the fall campaign.
"With these two contests, I have gained at least 18 additional delegates on my quest for the Republican Party presidential nomination," Romney said Wednesday. "It's time for Republicans to join together and focus on our central challenge, which is defeating Barack Obama at the polls this coming November."