For the bulk of the campaign season, we've been keenly aware that the GOP establishment-types had some grave misgivings over the fact that Mitt Romney might end up winning the nomination. But at the end of last week, what basically amounted to a sense of free-floating despair flared into a hot flash of panic -- only this time, it was paced by fears that Mitt Romney might lose.
The focus, of course, of the past two weeks, has been the upcoming primary in Michigan, where Rick Santorum surged into the lead. All of that hype was perhaps premature -- after all, Santorum's poll peak came well ahead of Romney operationalizing his money-powered character assassination machine. But ABC News Jonathan Karl landed the scoop of the week, in the form of an anonymous -- yet "prominent"! -- GOP senator, who said, "If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate."
Can: open. Worms: everywhere. Newt Gingrich: telling anyone who would listen that winning one's home state was of paramount importance. And the general feeling set in that Super Tuesday's fortunes might well be determined by the result in Michigan.
Right now, the Republican field has those GOP establishment-types in a knot of exquisite tension. The guy that's likely to carry the banner in the general election, Mitt Romney, is someone who's never been easy to pin down ideologically, and that makes Republican elites -- who are ever cognizant of the fact that John McCain failed amid numerous flip-flops, and the ever present "Republican In Name Only" label on the minds of the Republican base -- quite nervous. In Rick Santorum, the same key establishment figures know they have a "team player." Santorum himself, in this week's debate, famously copped to this. But with his tendency to never keep the "unadulterated Republican dogma" in dog-whistle form -- a matter that was examined hilariously by John Oliver of the "Daily Show" -- those same elites know that Santorum always puts the affections of independent voters at risk.
Meanwhile, their other choices are anything but team players. Newt Gingrich has burned bridges with his massive ego and boundless self-regard, and Ron Paul has staked out an entirely different patch of ideological territory. And he's got himself a delicate, deliberate plan to earn enough delegates through the primary process that, at the very least, could leave him in the position to play dealmaker.
Paul actually probably deserves some credit for being on the leading edge of the phenomenon that now has the GOP establishment cycling through various stages of grief. The elites have largely lost control of the process. They couldn't get the horses they wanted into the race to run. An eclectic group of flamboyant millionaires and billionaires now fund the machine through super PACs. The media has kept candidates who would otherwise have faded into also-ran status in January alive through debates. And the grassroots is up for grabs. The elites maintain a fantasy that they could still decide everything in some smoke-filled room, but look what that fantasy has been reduced to -- openly rooting for a deadlocked convention. That's what the comments of this anonymous GOP senator seem geared toward. Their ace in the hole is little better than a suicide pact.
But the GOP establishment still has one desire that could well unite everyone in the end: the desire to beat President Barack Obama in November. And that's why when a candidate finally emerges from this process -- and like Karl Rove, we believe that the "odds are greater that there's life on Pluto than that the GOP has a brokered convention" -- there's a good chance that everyone is going to look back on this time in their lives and their panic and their doubts and wonder why they made such a big deal about everything.
Providing they win, that is. As for who wins, so much depends on Michigan. For the rest of what went down on the campaign trail -- including third party titillations, Obama polling palpitations, and the Arizona debate conflagration -- please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of February 24, 2012.
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