With two primary contests in the books, we've arrived at the point where everyone has so much to say about so little and only a few more minutes before all of the major media organizations blow through the budget they've allocated for the entire pre-Super Tuesday calendar. But let's take a minute to size up your remaining GOP 2012ers and how their individual "paths to the nomination" stand.
MITT ROMNEY: It's kind of amazing that a thin win in Iowa, coupled with the blowout victory in New Hampshire that everyone had been predicting, could do so much to restore former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's inevitability, but that's the power of perception for you! It surely helped that right up to the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the fierce attacks that everyone was assured were sure to come from Mitt's rivals only materialized after the votes were counted and the scene switched southward. (And then, Mitt's chief tormentor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, went a little bit crazy, but more on that later.)
Dave Weigel made a game attempt at "putting things in perspective" by pointing out that the number of delegates Romney had actually won could all fit in his car-top dog-defecation chamber, but let's face it, it's one thing for a political observer to urge restraint. The minute you hear that argument coming out of the mouth of an also-ran, you immediately recognize it as sucker's talk. The bottom line is that Mitt has the inside track to the nomination, a slight lead in South Carolina, a large lead in Florida, tons of money, the Not-Romney vote still getting split in multiple directions, and if no one manages to break his stride, soon he'll start gulping down heaping mouthfuls of delegates.
RON PAUL: If the first goal of Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign was to expand upon the support he'd gathered in 2008, then he can hang the "Mission Accomplished" banner. But it nevertheless feels like gaining the GOP nomination is going to remain just past his fingertips. Had he scored an outright win in Iowa, it would feel different. As it stands, Paul needs to either start grabbing some surprise wins, or at the very least, manage his caucus strategy to perfection. Even if he does this, it still may leave him short of the mark.
We don't doubt that Paul is trying to win. This week, he gamely demanded that all of the other also-rans quit the race and leave him to fight Mitt on his own. (A demand that was enthusiastically ignored.) But if Paul can't win this thing, his strategy seems designed to leave him in a position to extract concessions in return for his delegates -- in the form of platform or procedural changes. Naturally, his popularity has left alive the notion that Paul might do something unconventional. Will he, for instance, mount a third-party or independent run for the White House? Read on: we think we've found the answer to that question.
RICK SANTORUM: We accept former Pennsylvania's Sen. Santorum's premise that there are three mini-primaries going on in the large race: an establishment primary, a libertarian primary and a "classic" conservative primary. Santorum might be able to claim the third position and battle Romney and Paul in a long three-way contest, but he needs some help -- either in the form of everyone else getting out of the race, or that secret social-conservative confab deciding to swing behind Santorum and quickly outfit him with money, endorsements, air cover and footsoldiers.
Santorum is on an upward swing in South Carolina, and just might have enough time to notch second place. It will, in all likelihood, not be the close second-finish he had in Iowa, but it could be sufficient to chase some of his rivals from the race, leaving their votes for him to claim. Santorum is also in desperate need of real campaign funding and infrastructure. As it stands, the further he goes into the calendar, the less the "Rick Santorum campaign" looks like the work of professional strategists who've staked out the game in each state, and the more it looks like "dudes with Facebook fan pages."
NEWT GINGRICH: We understand that many observers consider Gingrich to have the better shot at second place in South Carolina, and thus could be the person who ends up achieving the best case scenario we describe for Santorum. And at the moment, he's a lot closer to Mitt in the polls than the former Pennsylvania senator is. We just feel that Santorum is doing a lot with very little and expanding his possibilities, while Gingrich's campaign grows more threadbare, frantic and desperate.
Besides, Gingrich's decision to nuke Mitt Romney by disseminating an anti-Bain Capital mini-documentary was a big mistake. The 30-minute movie, bought and unleashed via Newt's super PAC, plays like the album Occupy Wall Street would produce for Adele if she ever broke up with capitalism. Gingrich's conservative colleagues freaked out at the sight of the damn thing, and condemned Gingrich for making the Democratic Party's argument against Romney for them. The whole episode caused Gingrich to suffer a physiological experience -- a moment of self-doubt -- that's so rarely felt by the former speaker that there's no telling whether he'll be able to recover.
JON HUNTSMAN: Going into the New Hampshire primary, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was the candidate who was supposed to be able to maximize his (strangely earned) center-left appeal, turn out different voter coalitions, and hold down Romney's win to single digits. But when all the votes were counted, Huntsman was proven to be the worst blowout-preventer since BP destroyed the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, Huntsman put on an almost-convincing display of not-at-all-forced jubilation, declaring third place to be a "ticket to ride"...to South Carolina, where voters do not like him.
Huntsman's path to the nomination basically involves riding his motorbike to some town named "Nomination."
RICK PERRY: Why is this guy even still running? His path to the nomination involves a time machine and a cache of firearms.
BUDDY ROEMER: Buddy is struggling right now because none of the elite media want to invite him to debates to decry the influence of corporate money on politics, and his insistence on taking donations no greater than $100 is keeping him from dropping the super PAC bombs that everyone else is launching. It's a pity that the campaign with the most dignity is faring the worst, but we can at least re-extract an important lesson about American politics: If you don't sell out, get the hell out.
We warned you that watching this stuff up close was going to make you deeply cynical. Didn't we? Okay, well, we're warning you now.
So it's on to South Carolina, Florida and beyond. Mitt Romney is hoping that his "win quickly" strategy is back on track. Rick Santorum is hoping that he can prove by contrast that he's the more appealing candidate. Ron Paul just wants CNN to stay out of his way. President Obama's fending off a new book, Rick Perry's in a tiff with Sean Hannity, Jon Huntsman may lose to a teevee comedian in the days ahead, and one candidate's endorsement from a psychic monkey did not pan out like he'd hoped. To find out who, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for Jan. 13, 2012.