For months now, the restless Republican search for a Not-Mitt -- a Great Red Hope -- has been described as the central dynamic of the GOP race. But I don't think that is really the story. The real reason so many Republican primary voters are holding their noses, gritting their teeth and still voting for Romney is there's simply no other qualified candidate who is running.
That is the real story.
Consider: One by one the would-be Not-Mitts have risen up, and one by one they have fallen (often helped by intensive barrages of Romney Super PAC advertising) as it's become clear that even the GOP base, as far-right as it is, can't imagine them in the White House. Michele Bachmann was too crazed, Rick Perry too incompetent, Herman Cain too immoral (and his tax ideas too absurdly simplistic), and Newt Gingrich too hair-on-fire hypocritical and unstable. Alone of those running, Jon Huntsman seemed clearly qualified, but he was also clearly too compromised (by his ambassador service to Obama).
The rise of the latest Not-Mitt, Rick Santorum, and what is likely now to be his inexorable decline, is following the same pattern. No one took Santorum seriously in the beginning because his run seemed self-indulgent at best. Here was a senator who was trounced by 18 points in 2006, hadn't served for six years while racking up millions as an influence peddler (sorry, "consultant") and, even when he was in the Senate, was disliked by his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats for his zealotry, incivility and inability to talk reasonably. ("That Rick is scary," one former GOP lawmaker recalls his wife saying after they left a fund-raising event together.)
Santorum did very well in the debates -- the central factor in these roller-coaster GOP polls-- as long as the focus was on Romney's flaws as a conservative. But as with Newt's penchant for rocketing off into grandiose flights of nonsense (his moon colony remark in Florida was probably the beginning of the end for him), it was only a matter of time before the Santorum that his colleagues knew and never loved --the one almost no one could imagine as president-- reappeared.
That's what happened last week. Santorum, under the apparent delusion that not only the GOP wingnuts but most of the country agreed with him, began imitating Savonarola and doing the Torquemada on the campaign trail. His national and Michigan lead in the polls evaporated in a matter of hours.
I wouldn't say this if Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Tim Pawlenty or even Paul Ryan were running. But the real story here is that Romney is virtually certain to get the nomination by default of being the only one even remotely qualified. The exit poll numbers in Michigan bore that out: the base liked Santorum for his moral character and conservatism, but Romney destroyed him when it came to electability.
Even so, as Romney has twisted this way and that--as well as spent much of his war chest--whack-a-moling pretender after pretender, his own electability has dropped. Which is the next real story.