12/13/2011 12:47 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

A Republican Primary Nobody's Winning

How bad are things getting for Republicans? It's come to this: Mitt Romney is attacking someone else for flip-flopping.

Having spent every day since 1985 in public office, Rick Perry is calling Romney, who hasn't held elected office for almost a decade, an "insider." Ron Paul, who thinks we should end ethanol subsidies for Iowa corn farmers, might win the Iowa caucuses. And the new frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, thinks we should colonize the moon.

This isn't a presidential primary, it's a clown car. Presidential campaigns are supposed to cull the herd, to elevate those aspirants who are truly worthy of leading the country that has given the world Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney.

Instead, we get Michele Bachmann and the seven dwarfs, and each one of the little people is competing to wear the Dopey costume. Forget the party of Lincoln, a cruel taunt from history. These short bus Republicans make Sarah Palin look competent.

Saturday night's debate in Des Moines showed why the Republican primary threatens to make each of their candidates unelectable. Romney reinforced how out of touch he was not just by offering Perry a $10,000 bet but also by pronouncing "poor" like a rich guy. Both he and Gingrich wrestled with explanations about how they didn't quite mean what you think it meant when they endorsed individual mandates. And despite the gold stars given to Gingrich for not losing his cool, loud laughter met his attempt to say the $1.6 million that Freddie Mac paid him was not for lobbying. From his perch atop the polls, Gingrich can see how far he is about to fall.

Saturday night's debate was first debate of this primary's second act. Gone are the days when showing up for debates and eating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair could move the needle. December will be remembered for a slew of nasty ads that make turning a stallion into a gelding comparatively benign. What had been a Montessori primary in which everyone got a turn to be in first place has entered its elimination round.

If it matters, Ron Paul started it. He slammed Newt Gingrich's flip-flops with an attack ad airing in Iowa called "Serial Hypocrisy." I'm not sure Paul framed this attack correctly. Intellectual consistency isn't a virtue for today's Republican Party. It's an annoyance, as is the word "intellectual."

It's hard to know exactly what will break through Newt's glib defenses to take down the former Speaker. His Freddie Mac millions? His bizarre proposals such as making poor kids clean their own schools? His documented support for cap & trade, individual health care mandates or amnesty for illegal immigrants? Even these negatives demonstrate the relative weakness of the Republican field. Remember when just being Newt Gingrich was enough to kill his chances?

Meanwhile, Mitt happens, and Romney finds himself falling further behind Gingrich every day. To blunt Gingrich's momentum, Romney is not so subtly reminding Iowans of Gingrich's avid non-monogamy by touting his 42-year-long marriage to Mrs. Romney. Far more dangerous is the attack ad launched by the Super PAC funded by Romney's backers. Among the kitchen sink charges in that ad is Gingrich has been flip-flopping on issues for the last 30 years.

This fratricide opens the door to Rick Perry, who clearly has decided he'll do anything to survive. Gay soldiers preventing school Christmas pageants? Done. White evangelicals in Iowa can resurrect Perry's campaign. To make that happen, Perry would endorse an amendment to put Leviticus into the U.S. Constitution.

With as many as two-thirds of all Republicans planning to attend the Iowa caucuses willing to change their minds, almost anyone can win Iowa, and so everybody's throwing punches. The only reason Bachmann and Santorum aren't running attack ads isn't because it's a bad idea, but because they don't have the money.

The problem for Republicans is that these ads might work. They started this month with only two candidates whom Republican voters rated as acceptable. If the attacks on Gingrich and Romney hit their targets, the Republican Party will have killed all their generals before the war even started. Instead of winnowing down the field to yield the most capable contender for That One, the primary has become a case study in what happens when you live by the sword of the politics of personal destruction.

Pity Republicans. They're going to have to choose one of these jokers.