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GOP Primary: A Fratricidal Embarrassment

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I am writing this from Dubai one day before South Carolina voters go to the polls. While it might have been nice had I been able to wait until late Saturday night when the votes were counted, with deadlines being deadlines, I must write now. In a way, though, it doesn't matter, since the particular observations I want to make aren't dependent on the outcome.

It makes no difference whether Republican voters decide to give former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich's presidential aspirations a last minute boost or decide to end the party's agony and give former Governor Mitt Romney a decisive win, that might help him clinch the nomination. It makes no difference, because the story of this Republican primary contest has already been written. In short, it has been more of a fratricidal embarrassment than an election. And, in the process, real damage has been done both to the Republican Party and to the country.

It was clear from the beginning that the Tea Party and the religious right would cannibalize the GOP. But watching it play out has been ugly. Their first victims were the more solid and experienced "should've run" Republican governors who chose not to enter the race. Next in line were the "never should've run" half-baked candidates who were each, for a short time, catapulted into the lead of this lack-luster field only to be humiliated and forced to drop out when it became clear that they "were not ready for prime time."

It is Romney who is paying the dearest price, and there is something almost sad about this election's Romney story. He is the classic "born with a silver spoon in his mouth," son of power and wealth, with a picture book family. Other things being equal, one might have thought that Romney would have been "the perfect Republican candidate," but for two deep "flaws": he is a Mormon and his political conversion to conservatism is considered unconvincing by many hardliners. As I watch Romney in debates, fielding challenges from lesser candidates, behind the starched shirt and crisp smile, you can see in his eyes a mix of desperation and anger. It is as if he is saying to himself "I've worked too long and too hard and have been the 'inevitable winner' for too many months for this to be happening to me." What he knows is that each attack has drawn blood and that continuing attacks can prove fatal.

Now I know that politics is rough business, but in my many decades of following presidential campaigns, I've never seen Republicans behaving like this. There is an old adage that says "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line." Historically, it is Democrats who have the bitter primaries and then have to make up and embrace at their convention as the party faithful swoons over their new nominee.

This is not to say that Republicans aren't, at times, quite nasty. They have been, but for the most part the GOP had tried to adhere to what have come to be known as "Reagan's 11th Commandment" -- "thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican." And when GOPer's did attack, it was often done discreetly -- with no fingerprints (remember the Bush-team's rumor campaign about McCain having fathered a non-white child, just before the South Carolina primary in 2000). In any case, by the time the party's establishment has made their choice clear, the GOP rank-and-file would respond, stopping their attacks and "falling in line" in support of their party's candidate.

This year's presidential contest started out being quite civil. But a combination of desperate candidates, the fervent desire of some hardliners to block Romney's bid for the nomination, and the explosion of "super PAC's" awash with money, have all contributed to changing this primary's political dynamic.

The attacks have been harsh and they have been sustained. And over time they have only become more intense and personal. As a result, real damage has been done. A recent poll, late this week, showed that: one in six Republicans said that they would not vote for Romney should he win the nomination; almost one half of all Republicans believe that Mormons are not Christians; and, at this late date, four in 10 Republicans remain unsatisfied with the candidates and still hope others will run. None of this adds up to anything good for Romney or for Republican chances in November.

One final observation that I must make is how hurtful this primary has been to America. From my vantage point here in the UAE (where I am teaching a short three week course at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus), each of the GOP debates and the rather bizarre story lines that have shaped this campaign, have made the race for the presidency look more like a clown show than a serious contest to determine who will lead the mightiest nation on earth. Their marriages, their money, their irresponsible hawkishness, and Islamophobia, and what appears to be their willingness to say almost anything, no matter how outrageous, in order to court favor with the hardest of their party's hardliners -- has resulted in producing a long-running embarrassment that, unfortunately, the whole world is watching.

So it doesn't matter who wins South Carolina's primary -- the damage has been done.