The Illinois presidential primary did Arkansas Republicans a favor, provided they weren't supporters of Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul. It narrowed the field to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the former more than ever the presumptive nominee and the latter the only man with a remote chance of delaying the coronation. So Illinois really narrowed the field to — Romney.

The Illinois presidential primary did Arkansas Republicans a favor, provided they weren’t supporters of Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul. It narrowed the field to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, the former more than ever the presumptive nominee and the latter the only man with a remote chance of delaying the coronation. So Illinois really narrowed the field to — Romney.

If Illinois did Arkansas a disservice, it lessened somewhat the possibility that its May 22 primary will draw much attention or bring on much political spending, assuming it will have any relevance to the outcome. Still, Santorum vows to fight on; and Gingrich, if other words, to snarl on. Romney’s six years of constant campaigning, to include his loss to John McCain four years ago, his bottomless bank account and his organizational superiority have carried him to the point where the mathematics of probability are all but overwhelming. You’ve heard the expression “ground game.” It means good staff — experienced, enthusiastic, capable of recruiting, organizing and supervising volunteers. It means knowing the territory, the state, down to the precinct level — the demographics of every neighborhood, their voting histories, the issues that matter, the endorsements that could make a difference.

Where to campaign the hardest, where to spend the money, which communities it would be smarter to concede than contest. How to smell sparks and extinguish them before they flame.

By the same measure you can have the Fed for a campaign treasury and the most seasoned political pros on your payroll but neither counts for much without ballot access. In a presidential race an effective ground game also means a thorough understanding of the rules for delegate selection in every state — they can differ significantly — and then applying the techniques of campaign management to the target. It is equal parts strategy and tactics, and a solid grasp of the primary or caucus regulations would sound equal parts easy and logical. In practice it is more logical than easy.

“For the party that hates the tax code so much,” writes political ace John Dickerson in Slate, “the Republican delegate apportionment process makes filling out your 1040 seem easy by comparison. If nothing else, like the tax code, the process makes a person feel like she’s being snookered out of something.” The allocation protocol for Arkansas’s 36 GOP delegates is instructive in that it is relatively simple. Becoming a delegate — it gets “a little complicated,” as Republican State Chair Doyle Webb acknowledges in a how-to video on the party’s Website. Only the serious need apply (not a bad thing).

Whether the trouble was at the field level or on the top floor (and the responsibility is ultimately the candidate’s), the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns were marked, and damaged, either by a failure to fully appreciate the delegate selection process or to meet its requirements, or both. The two men failed to enroll sufficient delegate candidates in several states, and in some states entirely. By one estimate the fumble cost Santorum a chance for 110 convention delegates, ten of them in Illinois alone. By contrast, Romney’s problems have been ideological, not operational, and in Illinois he appeared to have overcome the suspicions of some hard-core conservatives. The delegate selection sloppiness won’t alone keep Romney’s challengers from the GOP nomination but it is indicative of the organizational problems that almost certainly will. What the also-rans of the Republican field seem resolved to do is compel Romney to spend more time and more money keeping them at bay, forcing him farther right than he would prefer, while denying him the opportunity to refine his autumn approach.

One is reminded of the exchange, from The Lion in Winter, in which an aging King Henry dismisses Queen Eleanor’s vow to thwart his ambitions:

“You know me well enough to know I can’t be stopped!”

“I don’t have to stop you. I have only to delay you.”

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansass Week on AETN.