Washington (CNN) - Cast aside the drama (exciting as it is) of the GOP nomination and you get to the truth: it still comes down to cold, hard delegate numbers. By CNN's estimates, Mitt Romney has a commanding early lead, despite wins and second places by all three of his opponents.
So, let's be realistic. Is there a feasible path for a non-Romney to win? "There is," said Sean Trende, senior analyst for Real Clear Politics. "It's a very narrow path but it's starting to shape up that way."
What is that path? Listen to our American Sauce podcast here. Or keep reading.
Three ways a non-Romney could win
1. Santorum wins Michigan, has big Super Tuesday. (And gets help from Texas courts.)
Michigan's delegates (30 at stake in the primary) are nothing to sneeze at, but the real game in the Wolverine State primary on February 28th is about momentum. If Santorum can beat Mitt Romney in his home state, it could give him a pivotal turbo-boost of momentum for Super Tuesday.
Then let's imagine an ideal but still possible Santorum scenario:
– Two quick victories: Imagine Santorum wins Wyoming's caucuses on Feb. 29th. Then he takes Washington state's caucuses March 3.
– Super Tuesday Caucuses: On March 6, he sweeps caucuses in Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota. In some cases Santorum wins with 40% or more of the vote.
– Super Tuesday Primaries: Let's say the former senator wins two of these three big-state primaries: Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Santorum takes second in the state where he does not win. Where delegates are allocated proportionally, let's imagine that margins of victory are single-digit, varying from one percentage point to six or seven. At this point, Santorum would still trail Romney in delegates, but would have closed some of the gap.
– (Note: this scenario would give Massachusetts and Vermont to Romney and Georgia to Gingrich. Virginia going Ron Paul would help Santorum but is not necessary for a Santorum nomination path.)
– Critical Moment: Texas. As Santorum himself has said, the Texas primary cannot come soon enough for his campaign. The Lone Star State has 155 delegates up for grabs, to be divided proportionally. This is where Santorum could overtake Romney with a big win. It would have to be a large win, but it is possible. The problem? Due to a redistricting battle now in the courts, Texas has yet to decide when it will hold its presidential primary. It could happen as early as mid-April or as late as June. For Santorum to get the nomination, he needs a big Texas win and he needs it on the calendar soon.
– When? This scenario could lead to a brokered convention. But for Santorum to become the nominee before the convention, he would need the wins above, a big day in California in June (see below) and still more help to push out Romney. This could include a Gingrich drop-out and endorsement, public gaffes from Romney or an April/May surprise story that sinks Romney's ratings.
2. Gingrich wins Ohio, the South and survives to take California.
For Gingrich to indeed become the non-Romney in the nomination, he seemingly must win or come within a hair's margin of Ohio on Super Tuesday.
Thus, here is a conceivable Gingrich ideal:
– Two good debates. In CNN's debates on February 22, in Arizona, and March 1, in Georgia, the former speaker must have a series of hits. (A few undisputed home runs wouldn't hurt either.) He must get back on the radar with conservatives.
– February 28th Surprise: Two good debates could set up an Arizona or Michigan surprise on February 28th. Gingrich is not currently expected to do well in either state. But if he could pull off another South Carolina, changing the tide in one of those states just days before the vote, his campaign would be back in the headlines.
– Super Super Tuesday. Then let's say Gingrich wins big in his home state Georgia (by more than 12 points, sweeping congressional districts). But he also wins or is in a close second in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Rick Santorum also edges out Romney in at least one of those states, keeping the Massachusetts man's numbers low. Most significantly Gingrich takes Ohio, winning the vast majority of its Congressional districts and therefore netting 30-40 of the state's 66 delegates.
– March Mix: In March, Gingrich is first or second in primaries in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Gingrich pulls out an upset along the way – possibly in winner-take-all primary in Puerto Rico. (Again, we must stress, this is an exercise to map out a conceivable way Gingrich could win. I know there are arguments against a Gingrich Puerto Rico win, hence "upset".)
– Texas. Like Santorum, Gingrich could use a victory in Texas and he needs that vote to happen in April or May. But he may be betting on a later, bigger state instead. California.
– Surviving until California. Ultimately, Gingrich wants to stay in the headlines and with the front of the pack all the way into June when the biggest bear of all comes up to vote. California has 172 delegates up for grabs (pledged and unpledged). Most of those are winner-take-all by Congressional district. That means some highly liberal areas could be decided by a small Republican population in their district. If Gingrich can hold on and win the largest number of California's delegates, it could give him momentum toward a brokered convention.
– Winning before the convention?: Similar to Santorum, Gingrich would need some help to force out Romney before the convention. That could include the Santorum alliance that Gingrich continually pitches (Santorum would drop out and endorse Gingrich.) It would also require no major mistakes from Gingrich and some stumbles in Camp Romney.
3. Mixed bag ends at convention
What many experts see as the most-likely non-Romney scenario is a mix of wins carved up between Gingrich, Paul and Santorum that leads to a situation where no candidate gets the 1143 delegates needed by convention time.
There are endless combinations for this. But one to consider is a regional split with Santorum winning in the West, Midwest and North, Gingrich winning in the South and Ron Paul winning in Virginia with a few second places and many third places in various caucuses.
In this case, maybe it's easier to look at how Mitt Romney could block his rivals:
– Michigan and Ohio: These contests are shaping up as Romney v. non-Romney tests. If the former governor can win and especially if he can win big in these states, it could start to dampen the sparks from his competitors.
– Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia: Similarly, if Romney can produce big wins in conservative areas, like Oklahoma, Tennessee and southern Virginia, it could weaken the arguments from his opponents. Don't just watch Virginia's overall vote, watch how it's most conservative regions go on Super Tuesday.
Want to test your own theories of who will win in which state?
Try out CNN's delegate counter. Click here. Seriously. Do it now. This site lets you allocate delegates by each state, to see who will end up on top based on your predictions.
Also, comment below with your theories. And again, listen to our podcast here.
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– CNN's Dan Szematowicz and Emma Lacey-Bordeaux contributed to this report.