Whether or not former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wins Tuesday's primary contests in Michigan and Arizona, he is in trouble, and both he and the Republican Party leadership know it.
During the past month, the topsy-turvy Republican presidential contest took another turn, catapulting former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum into the lead over Romney. On one night two weeks ago, Santorum won three contests (in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri) giving him sufficient enough media exposure to push his poll numbers ahead of Romney's in most national surveys.
Only those who underestimated the strength of the "anybody but Romney" sentiment among grassroots Republicans were surprised by this turn of events. And at this point, it is that sentiment, driven by ideological purists from the party's religious right and Tea Party activists, that is responsible for the craziness of this year's presidential contest.
As I have noted before, it was the Tea Party and their ilk that kept more credentialed Republicans from entering the race -- leaving the field open to the likes of Donald Trump, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and pizza mogul Herman Cain. And while the GOP's establishment galvanized around Romney, seeing him as the "best of the bad options" in the race, they have not been able to win the day for their "chosen one."
One by one, the strange cast of characters running for the Republican nomination played "leap frog" with one another taking the lead for a few weeks before either collapsing under the weight of their own inadequacy, flaws in their make-up, or the destructive power of negative ads run by the well-financed Romney campaign.
First, it was Bachmann's turn as frontrunner, followed by Perry, and then Cain. Just one month ago, Gingrich's took the lead. He had won South Carolina and was leading in national polls. New life was breathed into the Romney effort by wins in Florida and Nevada. But then along came Santorum.
At that point, the party's establishment made a determined effort to boost Romney by helping him win a highly publicized but informal straw poll of attendees at a gathering of conservatives in Washington. State party leaders also "fixed" a Romney win in Maine's caucus election. By not reporting all the votes, they announced to the media that Romney had defeated Congressman Ron Paul. While neither "victory" meant very much (the Washington straw poll doesn't count for anything but one day "bragging rights," and Paul will ultimately win Maine anyway), these actions merely served to stop the media hemorrhaging that was hurting Romney. What they also highlighted, however, was Romney's and the establishment's desperation.
What the Tea Party and the religious right want is a candidate who is ideologically "pure" (and they believe Romney is not), while what the GOP leadership wants is a candidate who can win control of the White House and not hurt the party's chances to take control of both Houses of Congress (and they believe none of the other candidates are able to accomplish either objective). And so what I have called the "fratricidal embarrassment" continues. It was on display during Wednesday's televised Republican debate as the candidates focused their nasty attacks more on each other than on President Obama.
As a Democrat, I suppose I could take perverse delight in the GOP's self-destruction, but as an American, and a citizen of the world, I am concerned. The result of all this has not merely been a weakening of all the candidates involved, but a dangerous escalation of rhetoric as each of the remaining contestants move further to the right to demonstrate their bona fides to the party's hard core base. And here is where it becomes a danger to the country.
By now, the Republican field has locked themselves into the most extreme positions imaginable on economic, social, political, and foreign policy matters -- reinforcing the most reactionary instincts of Republican voters. This is the same crowd who brought us the "birther" and "Obama is a Muslim" movement, the anti-Park 51 campaign, and that argued that Obama advocated setting up "death panels" as part of his health care plan. Now they want to send troops back to Iraq, support a new war against Iran (while we are still cleaning up the mess from the last two unfinished wars), and chide Obama for "throwing Israel under the bus."
This is not your grandfather's Republican Party. This is a new creature, one that neither Romney nor the party's establishment appear to be able to lead or control. And so, whatever the outcome on Tuesday, this long drawn out contest will continue, with more blood being drawn and more ill-will being created within the party ranks.
Follow James Zogby on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AAIUSA