One GOP frontrunner is accused of several instances of sexual harassment; the other has managed to make his candidacy as exciting as coffin shopping. A third leading candidate spent this week trying to convince people he wasn’t drunk during a speech in New Hampshire. Not a single one of them—not Herman Cain nor Mitt Romney nor Rick Perry—bests a badly weakened Barack Obama in the latest polls. And yet our betters in the GOP establishment—the same crew who brought us Bob Dole, John McCain, and the PR strategy for the Iraq War—inform us that Republican primary voters are happier with their choices than ever.
The view may look bright at the top GOP echelon, but that does not appear to be the attitude of the rank and file. If anything, there is deep unease among activist conservatives—the sort who trudge to the polls in the bitter winters of Iowa and New Hampshire—about the state of the race. At several recent functions in Washington, attendees expressed great enthusiasm for unseating Obama, but hardly anyone was thrilled with their likely standard bearers.
Is it time for the GOP to start panicking yet?
Cain’s tortured and contradictory response to sexual-harassment allegations was made even worse by the reckless, not-ready-for-prime-time effort at deflection. Rick Perry was behind this! No, it was Rahm Emanuel! No, it was a massive media conspiracy! No, it was Professor Plum with the lead pipe in the billiards room. That Cain remains floating atop the GOP field is less a tribute to his staying power than a cruel indictment of the remaining field of frivolous flops. When you cannot lure voters away from a man who is accused of several counts of disreputable behavior and who seems to lack an understanding of many basic issues, from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to his own tax plan, you’ve got yourself a problem.
As for Romney, he has finally started to outline some specifics to his proposals, most notably courageous plans to reform Medicare and Social Security. But even this effort posed an interesting problem for him. If another candidate had talked freely about raising the retirement age for Medicare and Social Security and turning Medicaid into block grants, there might have been a larger outcry. With Romney, there really wasn’t. Even the media seem to have decided that nothing the risk-averse, milquetoast Romney says really has anything to do with his presidency. All his ideas feel like consultant-fed pablum free to be ignored the minute the polls turn. When 72 percent of Romney’s own voters say they could easily change their vote to someone else, you’ve got a problem.
Which means the GOP nominating process may yet take some surprising turns. Overall, about half of Republicans surveyed in a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll said they may yet change their allegiance in the race. That feels about right. In fact, the number may even grow higher as voters continue to shop for the least unacceptable of the lot.
Of the main contenders, only Perry and Newt Gingrich have demonstrated any signs of resurgence. Since the GOP debates commenced, Gingrich has steadily crept back into double digits in most polls, based on something surprising: ideas. He has little money, he has few ground troops, he has unleashed no attack ads, but he has answered questions clearly, forthrightly, and knowledgeably. And it is not inconceivable that others—even a Bachmann or a Santorum or a Huntsman—may finally find their day in the sun.
This year feels very different, as if anything could happen. Who knows: if an establishment favorite like Romney falters early, it is always possible that an entirely new candidate might yet decide to jump into the contest. Hoover, FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, and LBJ each won presidential primaries as write-in candidates. If things continue to be so unsettled, it’s not impossible that someone may decide to repeat that feat in 2012. Just don’t anybody give that idea to Donald Trump.