WASHINGTON — Are we there yet? Not quite. Mitt Romney's two steps forward, one flub back campaign continues its tantalizing progress toward a total victory that always seems just ahead.
Still, the Republican presidential race has got to end sometime, whether it's April or August. Here are five ways to settle this thing:
1. The likeliest route
Romney pulls off a clean win by the time the last state votes in June.
Sure, he's cutting it closer than he'd like, but if Romney keeps up his current pace he can win the necessary majority — 1,144 delegates — by June 26, if not sooner. Last-chance Utah, where Romney is embraced by a large population of fellow Mormons, would make a poignant wrap-up.
After Louisiana's primary Saturday, 21 states and the District of Columbia have yet to vote, and Romney's about halfway to the magic number, according to The Associated Press delegate count. If he hits his mathematical mark — or if his only rival within shouting distance, Rick Santorum, drops out — Romney instantly becomes the presumptive nominee and the general election race is on.
But Santorum and Newt Gingrich are trying to prevent that tidy Romney finish by sticking in the contest and drawing away votes. That strategy comes as many Republicans are eager to choose a champion and turn the party's attention to defeating President Barack Obama.
2. Flying to the rescue
Superdelegates can speed up the finish.
They were empowered just for this sort of scenario. All members of the Republican National Committee automatically attend the nominating convention, and 117 of them are superdelegates whose state party rules leave them free to vote however they choose.
So far most have stayed on the sidelines while the primary plays out. Romney's big win in Illinois and a growing sense of inevitability may draw more superdelegates to endorse him, allowing him to claim the status of presumptive nominee sooner than he otherwise could.
If Romney comes up just shy in the state-by-state voting, superdelegates could push him over the top before the Republican National Convention. They would have plenty of incentive to cut to the finale.
The goal when the GOP meets Aug. 27 in Tampa, Fla., is four scripted days of television that play like a campaign commercial for the nominee, not a reality show full of squabbling factions.
"The Republicans understand the risks of taking this family feud to the convention," said Democrat Donna Brazile, who advised Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns.
Any public bickering would be especially poorly timed this year: The Democrats' meticulously crafted convention, showcasing a president who faced no challengers within his party, comes the week after the Republicans meet.
3. Contested convention
Suddenly the long-winded roll call of the states gets interesting.
If Romney fails to snag the necessary delegates, Republicans can buckle up for their most tumultuous convention since Ronald Reagan nearly stole the nomination from President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Ford, lifted to the presidency through Richard Nixon's resignation, had accumulated more delegates than the more conservative, charismatic Reagan. But Ford was short of a majority, leaving the Kansas City convention's outcome in doubt. A rules fight launched and lost by the Reagan forces added to the drama. The tension didn't ease until the roll call vote: Ford eked out the nomination, 1,187 votes to 1,070.
Like Ford, Romney's goal would be to coax more people to his side for that crucial first vote, when most delegates are obligated by state party rules to support the candidate chosen by the voters back home.
If Romney doesn't win that first round, things could get chaotic.
4. Winning by losing
Santorum grabs the chance he's been waiting for.
This is the scenario Santorum's campaign is pushing to explain how he could still get the nomination after trailing in primary voting.
If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, GOP rules require roll call after roll call until one person emerges with a majority. After the first round, the delegates are mostly free to back whomever they want, so bargaining can begin in earnest.
Santorum lays out a vision in which Romney is weakened by his failure in the first roll call and the party activists, preferring a more conservative candidate, begin migrating to Santorum.
"The problem with that in the practical sense is it would mean disenfranchising the majority of the Republican voters who voted in the primary process and picked Mitt Romney, to choose someone who got not only less delegates, but far less votes," said Steve Schmidt, who was senior adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
When delegates are unbound, there's no telling which way they'll turn or how long they'll take.
Democrats hold the record: 103 roll calls. That's how many votes it took to dismiss their two leading candidates and dozens of others in 1924 and settle on little-known West Virginia lawyer John Davis. He lost in a landslide to Republican President Calvin Coolidge.
In a more fortuitous choice, Abraham Lincoln came from behind to win the Republican nomination on the third roll call in 1860.
5. Brokered convention
The powerbrokers toss out the candidates and draft someone new.
It sounds crazy after decades of hermetically sealed conventions. And it's certainly a long shot. It would mean rejecting everyone who's received actual votes from the Republican faithful. But some delegates might see that as a more appealing way to compromise.
The last time one of the two major parties drafted its nominee — and the last convention to require more than one roll call — was when the Democrats turned to Adlai Stevenson in 1952.Comment on this story
The closed conclave of party elders who elevated Warren Harding to the front of the pack at the contentious 1920 Republican convention is believed to be the origin of the term "smoke-filled room."
The likeliest last-minute possibilities this year, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, insist they don't want the call.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose name also has been bandied about, put the kibosh on the idea by announcing his endorsement. He said that "now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Gov. Romney."