MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Here's the main thing to know about the Republican presidential race as it heads into high season tonight with a debate sponsored by Bloomberg and the Washington Post at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.: In New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is standing tall with 44 percent of the vote in the new Marist College Poll.
But that is the best news he's got.
The national "front runner," Romney is five points behind "No Opinion" in the new Washington Post poll. In other words, a man of many opinions confronts a base that has only one: They don't like him.
Romney garnered 24 percent, his "foe" 29 percent. As important as the number is the direction. In his case, none. In most polls he has been stalled at or below 25 percent since the day he announced.
"If I were still advising Mike Huckabee and he had those kind of numbers, I would be advising him to think of getting out," said Hogan Gidley, who is now advising former Sen. Rick Santorum.
This election so far has been a bad dream for Republicans, one from which they are having trouble waking up.
The country is scared, the Tea Party is still boiling, the Occupy Movement is burgeoning, the economy is probably headed for a second recession -- and Republicans so far can't find anyone who seems broadly sensible or salable at a time when President Obama's re-election chances depend on the implausible Electoral College strategy of winning Virginia and North Carolina.
So the GOP race remains not only wide open -- and getting nastier by the day -- but somehow not quite real, even as voting (on a speeded-up timetable) is due to begin in less than three months.
The debate tonight is not so much about one or another candidate -- the media spin is that it's about Rick Perry -- but about the Republican Party itself.
Does the GOP have a message, a plan and a messenger to make the anti-Obama case? Will the GOP have anything positive, inspiring or new to say about the economy and jobs, and a person to say it?
The weird mixture of attack-ad intensity and field-wide torpor gives lower tier candidates some hope that their moment might still come.
Everyone knows the basic shape of the race, such as it is: Romney, colossus though he is not, against a "conservative" TBD.
Top advisors to some of those "conservatives" don't bother touting their candidate per se; rather, they stress that the physics of the race requires one of their number to face off eventually against the shape-shifting former governor of Massachusetts.
So who will that person be? Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Gov. Perry of Texas doesn't have to hit it out of the park at Dartmouth. He does have to stay awake and not make mistakes. "I like Rick, but it turns out he can't hit big league pitching," former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told The Huffington Post this morning.
But with $17 million in the bank and a mean-as-a-rattler campaign style, Perry doesn't have to shine in debates. He has the money and the Texas-based plausibility at least to hang round.
Look for Herman Cain to take some heat tonight, now that he has "surged" to second place, polling in the high teens in some surveys. Gingrich says that the pizza man's "9-9-9" tax play will do Cain in once people actually start studying it. "One of those 9s is a 9 percent sales tax," Newt pointed out. "That isn't going to sell."
Santorum is still waiting for his moment, and Michele Bachmann is hoping against hope that she will get another chance.
Gingrich radiates a supreme, knowing calm that belies his past troubles on the trail. "We are headed into a second recession," he said. "Things are going to get so bad that voters are going to have to turn to me," he said cheerfully. "People are going to want someone with real, deep knowledge, and that person is me."
The second tiers -- and the rest of the pack -- can take some comfort from modern nomination-race history. You don't have to look farther back than October 2003 on the Democratic side. Gen. Wesley Clark "led" the pack with 14 percent of voter preference nationwide. "Don't know" was 21 percent. Of course Sen. John Kerry won the nomination.
And lost to President George W. Bush.