As President Obama strides to the podium in the House chamber on Tuesday night, he might have a bit more spring in his step than a few weeks ago. The question on his mind, though, is the same as many others have: “What in the hell is going on in the Republican Party?”
Rep. Michele Bachmann wins the Iowa Republican straw poll in August. Now we find out that former Sen. Rick Santorum actually won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Former Gov. Mitt Romney captures the New Hampshire primary. Now former House Speaker Newt Gingrich decisively wins the South Carolina primary last Saturday. And that leaves out the brief flings with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain last fall. We hear so many times that the Republican nomination always goes to the winner of either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Since 1980, South Carolinians are also supposed to have a 100 percent record of picking the nominee. But no one was prepared for the pinball-game aspect of this year’s contest. Nothing like this has ever happened, and it’s hard to figure out what is happening and why.
My wife, an amateur psychologist, thinks that the Grand Old Party is suffering from a nervous breakdown. Others suggest multiple personalities, while still others wonder if the Republican Party is suddenly showing signs of suicidal tendencies. My own style is to be a little less judgmental, but I have to acknowledge that I am very confused. The field seemed to be set when potentially strong contenders decided not to run. It appeared to be more so once former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty didn’t catch on and after Perry bombed out. It looked like Romney was the inevitable Republican nominee. Moderately successful presidential campaigns appear to have a national organization and infrastructure, broad fundraising capabilities, and the little things, like not having a problem meeting the requirements to get on primary ballots. There was only one 11-man team on the field: Mitt Romney’s. Sure, Romney’s buttoned-down, corporate style didn’t seem such a natural fit for a party most recently seen engaging in raucous tea party events and marching on Washington with Glenn Beck. But those seemed like pesky technicalities.
It appears that Republican voters are trying to solve a three-dimensional puzzle, something of a political Rubik’s Cube. The first dimension is the challenge to find the most passionate, unabashed conservative available. They are looking for someone who, to use Rep. Steve King’s phrase, is a “full-spectrum conservative.” This person articulates the conservative ideology with the fiery commitment that matches what resonated so well among tea party activists in 2009 and 2010.
The second dimension of the puzzle for Republicans is to find the best available debater. This has never been a top priority before, but it really is now with the unprecedented pace of debates. Republicans want a nominee they can visualize going toe-to-toe with President Obama next fall.
The third and final dimension of this Rubik’s Cube is someone who can win the general election. Nothing else unifies the Republican Party more than the desire to defeat President Obama. It is curious, though, that of the South Carolina Republicans who voted, 45 percent of them said defeating Obama was the most important characteristic. Among them, 51 percent thought Gingrich had the best chance of winning. This was a very different assessment than Republicans had in earlier states. This was even in contrast with the views of most political pros, journalists, and Washington insiders. Many of them see the former speaker as borderline unelectable, pointing to his 2-1 ratio of unfavorable-to-favorable poll numbers among voters.
Republican voters are finding it challenging to solve this political Rubik’s Cube. They look to pick the one candidate who lines up with each of the three dimensions just right. Other than having been a Senate appropriator and having favored earmarks in the past, Santorum is certainly a full-spectrum conservative. Many question his electability. They see him as an able debater, but not as a tournament champion. Newt is a fabulous debater, but can he win a general election? Romney had seemed highly electable, but his never-terrific debating skills seem to have deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks. There have always been doubts about his conservative bona fides.
The once-inevitable Romney nomination now comes down to Florida. If Romney wins Florida, he probably goes on to win the nomination. If Romney loses Florida, though, watch for the establishment to panic and begin looking for a new contestant. Just keep in mind that 13 states have filing deadlines that come after the Florida primary. Those states include California, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. If I were a betting person, I’d still put my money on Romney winning, but with a lot more hesitation than 10 days ago. A loss in Florida, and all bets are off. Needless to say, a lot of Republican elected officials and operatives are apoplectic these days. A presidential election that not long ago looked like theirs to lose is suddenly looking very iffy.
This article appears in the Jan. 24, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.