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May 31, 2011, 4:37 p.m.

A Rasmussen Re­ports (IVR) poll; con­duc­ted 10/4; sur­veyed 500 LVs; mar­gin of er­ror +/- 4.4% (re­lease, 10/9). Tested: LG Den­nis Daugaard (R) and state Sen. Scott Heide­priem (D).

Gen­er­al Elec­tion Match­up

- Now 9/8 8/3 7/6 6/10 5/26 4/21 3/25 2/23 D. Daugaard 57% 57% 59% 52% 52% 51% 53% 49% 41% S. Heide­priem 33 28 27 35 36 36 33 32 32 Oth­er 4 4 4 4 3 7 5 6 7 Un­dec 6 11 10 9 9 6 9 13 19

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this week pon­der­ing what it means to stand one’s ground.

The term has taken on a new, dis­turb­ing mean­ing as the story of the shoot­ing of an un­armed Flor­ida teen­ager took on a life of its own. I don’t know any­one who’s ever loved a boy who was not un­nerved by this. Flor­ida’s self-de­fense law, known as “Stand Your Ground,” al­lows cit­izens who feel they are in im­min­ent danger to pro­tect them­selves — with a gun, if need be.

The idea of pro­tect­ing one­self, one’s fam­ily, and one’s prop­erty from in­truders is so ap­peal­ing that 21 states have ad­op­ted some ver­sion of the law. In this case, the pro­tec­tions of the Flor­ida law ap­peared to have al­lowed 28-year-old George Zi­m­mer­man to es­cape im­me­di­ate ar­rest and pro­sec­u­tion for shoot­ing 17-year-old Trayvon Mar­tin dead late last month. Mar­tin was walk­ing through a gated com­munity with candy and a can of iced tea.

Cit­izens of San­ford, Fla., protest the death of Trayvon Mar­tin (CNN)

The up­roar con­sumed the blo­go­sphere, talk shows, news­pa­per front pages, black ra­dio, and in­nu­mer­able kit­chen-table con­ver­sa­tions. Does stand­ing one’s ground mean de­fend­ing one­self no mat­ter what? And when civil rights lead­ers in San­ford, Fla., later de­clared “the line has been drawn in the sand,” wer­en’t they too stand­ing their ground?

Stand­ing one’s ground sounds great. It sig­nals cour­age and back­bone. Politi­cians have been trad­ing in this cur­rency forever. They call it lead­er­ship, and voters usu­ally agree.

Stand­ing one’s ground has polit­ic­al as well as so­cial con­sequences, as we have seen this week — which brings us to Mitt Rom­ney. As I have writ­ten in this space be­fore, the former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor and still-likely GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee can­not shake his chief weak­ness — the per­cep­tion that he is too flex­ible.

This repu­ta­tion, rooted in his days as the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor of a no­tori­ously blue state, has dogged him throughout the primar­ies. Fueled by the de­term­ined pur­suit of Newt Gin­grich and Rick San­tor­um, the Rom­ney-as-un­re­li­able meme has now be­come a re­cur­ring top­ic on the trail.

And just when he seemed to re­gain the sense of in­ev­it­ab­il­ity that he wore as a front-run­ner’s cape by scor­ing a de­cis­ive win in Illinois, his chief spokes­man re­minded every­one of his can­did­ate’s chief weak­ness.

Ap­pear­ing on a CNN talk show, strategist Eric Fehrn­strom re­spon­ded to a ques­tion about wheth­er Rom­ney would be able to veer back to­ward the cen­ter dur­ing a gen­er­al elec­tion cam­paign after re­peatedly trum­pet­ing his con­ser­vat­ive bona fides dur­ing the primary sea­son.

“Well, I think you hit a re­set but­ton for the fall cam­paign,” he said. “Everything changes. It’s al­most like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and start all over again.”

Let us pause here to say this made the folks at Obama headquar­ters in Chica­go very, very happy.

Rick San­tor­um holds up an Etch A Sketch in San Ant­o­nio, Texas (CNN)

By the end of the day on Wed­nes­day, Rom­ney was try­ing to clean up the day’s mini-storm by stat­ing flatly that his is­sues would be “ex­actly the same” in the fall gen­er­al elec­tion. But by then, the Rom­ney cam­paign had — not for the first time — com­mit­ted an­oth­er un­forced er­ror, and on the very day he should have been cel­eb­rat­ing his win in Illinois and a Jeb Bush en­dorse­ment. Gin­grich and San­tor­um promptly got hold of Etch A Sketches to bran­dish on the cam­paign trail. A San­tor­um aide even raced to a Rom­ney event in Mary­land to hand out the toys to re­port­ers.

We can­not res­ist a toy. And we can­not res­ist a ker­fuffle that plays in­to a pre­con­ceived no­tion.

But we do like con­sist­ency. I was re­minded of that this week when I sat down on Cap­it­ol Hill to in­ter­view re­tir­ing Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Jeff Binga­man, D-N.M. As we chat­ted be­fore the in­ter­view began, it hit me how long it had been since I had been able to get sen­at­ors of op­pos­ing parties to sit down next to each oth­er for a joint in­ter­view. At best, we are only able to get Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats to sit down “back to back,” rather than en­gage each oth­er dir­ectly.

Binga­man and Snowe, of course, who rep­res­ent the van­ish­ing middle in their parties, are on their way out of the Sen­ate. Their con­sist­ency is rooted in a firm be­lief in the value of bi­par­tis­an­ship. But Demo­crats on the left and Re­pub­lic­ans on the right have come to treat the search for com­mon ground as a sign of un­re­li­ab­il­ity.

“There’s not much of a cen­ter,” Snowe told me. “And we have to de­cide that the in­sti­tu­tion has to not only solve prob­lems, but the Amer­ic­an people have to give re­wards to those people and in­di­vidu­als who are will­ing to work across party lines. There are no polit­ic­al re­wards for that today.”

So of­ten our ideals clash with our ac­tions, wheth­er in life or in polit­ics or in stand­ing your ground.

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