A campaign roller coaster like no other

There are no apologies needed for a continuing fascination with the Republicans’ path to a presidential nominee. There can’t be too many nominee selection exercises, if any, over the course of history that can rival this one for such wild swings in the fortunes of would-be standard bearers. It’s just amazing, since the process began last year, how many alleged leaders of the pack there have been, and how, with all his resources and the label of presumptive nominee long bestowed on him, Mitt Romney still finds himself unable to formally occupy that anointed space.

Rick Santorum had all the appearance of a footnote to the proceedings as the GOP presidential aspirants got into their free-for-all. For whatever reasons, Santorum has now assumed a position out front in national polls as Republican voters’ choice, posing the kind of challenge for Romney that Newt Gingrich did just recently. How does Santorum, beaten quite handily in ’06 in his bid to retain his Pennsylvania Senate seat, make this loud noise in going for these big stakes? How does Gingrich, when he surged, do likewise after running a campaign that became a laughing stock, so much so as to cause a mass departure of campaign staff?

All supposedly informed observation points to the non-Romney element in the mix as catalyst for this unseemly voter behavior. Although apparently agreed that of those running, Romney stands the best chance of being competitive against President Obama, Republican voters just don’t seem able to get comfortable with the idea of Romney representing their brand. The result of which has been this alphabet soup of contenders being given turns at the helm at any given moment. Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, even Donald Trump early in the game, have enjoyed a taste of the “frontrunner” spotlight along the way. You wonder whether those who quit, fearing they had precious little chance of elevation to elite status, like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman, may not have subsequently come to see their withdrawals as premature, given what uncanny turns have been taken by this roller coaster.

The see-through conservative garb worn by Romney is always where the trail leads. Romney’s past, including being governor of Massachusetts where he authored his once much ballyhooed health care reform measure, along with other parts of his profile that don’t quite match the true conservative type, has been the big impediment to his closing the deal with Republican primary voters. Romney is right now on the verge of what could be a key indicator for him of what kind of traction he commands among the GOP following. If in Michigan, where he grew up and where his father was once governor, he is bested by Santorum, as currently evidenced in the polls, it would be the kind of body blow that could have serious knockout potential. Adding significantly to his problems in Michigan is that he must defend his opposition to the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry during the recession’s darkest days. The Michigan primary is coming, ironically, right in the midst of euphoria in the American auto worker ranks over news of the industry having rebounded, with handsome profits to show for it. Romney’s criticism of the lifeline the administration decided to throw to a sinking Detroit looks now to be big-time electioneering baggage.

In truth, given the lack of core conviction that has come to surround Romney, it won’t be all that smart to bet that he really feels the bailout was flawed policy. In robotic fashion he makes these pretentious anti-Obama utterances, no doubt thinking that at least some portion of his audience buys the stuff, simply because he’s the salesman. A fellow running with an air of inevitability about securing the nomination would be given to that kind of swagger. Being waylaid in Michigan, if that comes to pass, would probably bring about somewhat of a change in the strut. Even if he pulls off Michigan, though, Romney’s messaging problem there, vis a vis his being on the wrong side of the auto industry bailout issue, is a cautionary tale for the national landscape that he would be well advised not to ignore. Should overall economic news continue to be positive, Romney’s pious declarations about Obama being clueless as to how to fix the economy will sound ever more phony to an electorate that apparently already has difficulty giving this guy genuine article status.

In light of all these undulations on the road to the GOP’s nominee, what’s not going away, and probably gaining even more of a foothold with the rise of the likes of Santorum to frontrunner billing, is talk of someone not in the current bunch coming into the race, who offers a way out of the dilemma facing the party. It’s got to be god-awful frustrating to not feel suitably bonded with the fellow thought to have the best shot against an incumbent you desperately want to dethrone, while convinced that others now in the race are all of the bound-to-lose variety. The way it’s been going, one wouldn’t at all want to foreclose the possibility that there’ll be plot surprises up ahead to rival any John Grisham novel.

A roller coaster indeed, have the Republicans fashioned for themselves this campaign season. And, as we’ve said before, probably not a model they’re likely to go for again.

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