The 2012 Republican primary election season, so far, has been a fairly normal one, at least on the surface. The "next in line" candidate (traditionally either a sitting vice president or the guy who lost the last GOP nominating contest) seems about to coast to a pretty early and pretty easy victory. Pundits everywhere are predicting Mitt Romney will win both South Carolina and Florida, and at that point they will pronounce the race all but over (except for Ron Paul's campaign, of course, which they will ignore).
By the time the race solidifies into a "two-man race," one man will likely already have won the contest, to put it another way. Some folks are even predicting Mitt's inevitability, should he handily win South Carolina this weekend. If this script plays out according to the normal Republican playbook, the party will soon fall into line behind their nominee, and all agree to ignore all the things they don't like about him, to present a unified face of the party in the fall general election.
Of course, underneath this surface read of the situation, there's a roiling fight going on. This, too, isn't all that out of the ordinary for Republicans, because (after all) the second-place finish in the Republican primaries may become determinative in 2016, should Obama win a second term -- the same way Mitt's second-place finish in 2008 has set him up in this cycle. I'm not saying that's necessarily what's going to happen, but rather that it fits in with the way Republicans normally nominate people in each cycle.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, for a number of reasons. The first came from the party apparatus itself, which had determined that a prolonged primary fight was exactly what they wanted. This sounds odd, but they were attempting to apply the lesson of the Obama/Clinton showdown in 2008 -- a longer primary season supposedly toughens your eventual candidate for the fall race. To (partially) achieve this, the early-voting states had to award their delegates proportionally to the candidates, rather than the more traditional Republican method of "winner-takes-all." This would give secondary candidates a fighting chance, and avoid wrapping the race up too early. The Republican Party machine only partially bought into this scheme, as later races would revert to winner-takes-all, so that the primary battle didn't go on too long. But Mitt Romney may still wear the "inevitability" crown, post-Florida. The only thing the proportional races may change is Ron Paul arriving at the convention with a solid bloc of delegates in his pocket -- not at all what the party had planned.
The second reason this election wasn't supposed to be a normal Republican cycle was the Tea Party influence. The 2010 midterm election was virtually all about the Tea Party, for better or worse. The Tea Party Republican faction was the tail wagging the Republican Party dog, due to their outspokenness and supposed strength. But the Tea Party folks have either been extremely quiet this election cycle, or they've been so fractured that their message is indecipherable. They have reverted to being just one demographic of the Republican Party, and not any kind of majority or leading voice among the rank-and-file Republican voters.
This has led to the real race within the Republican primaries -- the race to be the prime "not-Romney" candidate. Ironically, this "not-Romney" race is killing the chances of the "not-Romney" candidate actually winning any primary races against Romney. Again, this isn't entirely out of the ordinary for Republicans -- Iowa and New Hampshire rarely set a two-man race into stone, even in the GOP. But the dream all along, for those Republicans not enamored of Mitt, has been to coalesce around one strong conservative who could take the fight to Romney, and prevent him from walking off the field with an easy victory.
The problem with this, though, was the relative weakness of the not-Romney wannabes, and the fractured nature of the campaign at the end of 2011. Candidate after candidate was supposed to be anointed "not-Romney," only to crash and burn when they got to the spotlight. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain... all were so seriously flawed that they even lost the support of the Tea Party voters in turn. At the end, the contest devolved into one between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum -- both also seriously flawed candidates. Ron Paul holding a solid (and ultra-committed) 10-15 percent of the voters didn't help matters, either (Paul isn't really in the running for the "conservative not-Romney" slot, he's far outside the criteria for such a candidate, as far as the voters are concerned).
Which leads us to where we find ourselves. Newt Gingrich will likely come in second place in South Carolina. The fight between Gingrich and Santorum will likely continue (at the very least) to Florida. Perry may drop out, but it won't affect this race much. Ron Paul will stay in, but this won't affect the not-Romney race much either. But even supposing that either Gingrich or Santorum knocks the other out of the running after Florida (by coming in a strong second) by that point it likely won't matter much.
Assume for the sake of argument that Newt emerges from South Carolina and Florida on top of Santorum (assume, if you wish, the other way around -- it doesn't really matter for the purposes of discussion). Then the candidates move on to eight states before Super Tuesday dawns in early March. Ron Paul may win a few surprise caucuses, or he may not. Gingrich, on the other hand, will be fighting the headwind of the entire media universe proclaiming that the race is over (and getting bored with covering the story) and the even-stronger headwind of the Republican Party apparatus screaming for him to concede the race and drop out. Add to this the fact that Gingrich will have serious problems raising money at this point, compared to Romney, who will be raking the big bucks in as the presumptive nominee.
Gingrich (or Santorum) will be relegated to "voice crying in the wilderness" status both within the party and in the media. So will Ron Paul, but for Ron Paul this is familiar territory and he knows how to operate in such a position. Gingrich, on the other hand, will get more and more desperate for attention. Which likely won't do him any good. Unless Romney stumbles in a big way, Mitt will likely be running up larger and larger victories all the way to Super Tuesday. The chances of Gingrich coming from behind and racking up enough delegates to win will become more and more mathematically improbable.
If either Gingrich or Santorum (or even Perry) had managed to cement their status as the alpha "not-Romney" in the race at this point, they might have had a chance in that fabled "two-man race" (or, more properly, "two-man-plus-Ron-Paul race"). Adding Gingrich and Santorum's support in South Carolina easily shows that Romney could have been defeated here, if the field had narrowed. Florida would even be in play, likely.
I don't blame Gingrich and Santorum for staying in as long as they have, though. Both have a very good case to make that they are the stronger candidate to take on Romney. If Gingrich places a strong second in South Carolina, this will only even the argument out between the two about how "electable" they are.
But by the time this fight is truly settled, it is likely to be too late. To use a way-too-early 2012 Olympics metaphor, it won't matter who wins the epic struggle for silver and bronze, if Mitt Romney walks off the stage with the gold medal around his neck.
Follow Chris Weigant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisWeigant