12/24/2011 12:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 23, 2012

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Cast in GOP's Race to Casa Blanca

The Republican presidential race was a reality TV show. But now that the primaries and caucuses are coming right up, it's a road picture. Here's how each candidate, a distinct type, is doing right now.

The Legend in His Own Mind

There aren't many historical figures that the ostentatiously intellectual Dr. Newton Leroy Gingrich hasn't compared himself with lately, and always quite favorably. He even declared himself the nominee.

But he should have paid a little more attention to sports than that National Merit Scholarship, especially in a process that doesn't value intellectual capability all that highly. Because there really aren't many games that are over before half-time.

In the Republican presidential race, Gingrich's lead over Mitt Romney was down to two points in the Gallup Poll on Wednesday. Not that Romney is moving up, mind you. He's where he's been all year. But millions of dollars in attack ads and lots of coordinated attacks are taking their toll on Gingrich, which may be why he scrapped his original plan to spend Christmas week at home in Virginia and not return to Iowa until Dec. 27. That was, frankly, a preposterously whimsical notion on his part. Instead, he spent Monday and Tuesday in the Hawkeye State, and calling on his opponents to wage positive rather than negative campaigns, especially Mitt Romney's super PAC. Good luck with that.

But he may already be having a turn in his luck nonetheless. Gingrich, who has been hammered for the past two weeks in TV ads and in a series of coordinated attacks by mostly pro-Romney forces, is moving back up in national polls, while Romney has slid some. Gingrich's lead in the Gallup Poll, down to only two points on Wednesday, went back up to six points on Thursday, 27 percent to 21 percent.

Romney decided to duck Gingrich's challenge to debate next week, any time and anywhere Romney wanted. He said that it's not fair to the rest of the field. But Romney, who fared well when no one asked him any probing questions, and is again showing that he doesn't really know what someone in his position should know, looks programmed and weak again. Gingrich would likely mop the floor with him in a free-standing debate, and he must know it.

The Man on Top of the Wedding Cake

Ex-frontrunner Mitt Romney demonstrated his uncanny ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth at the same time in the middle of the week. He is saying that he hates super PACs and that they are an embarrassment that should be abolished, but he won't criticize his own super PAC, run by his 2008 presidential campaign aides and funded with unlimited contributions from his campaign backers, that is smearing Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, he says, has to learn to deal with the heat of the kitchen.

Somehow, I have a feeling that Romney is going to end up feeling the heat of something fiercer than a boiling tea pot. Romney, incidentally, falsely claimed in an MSNBC interview that the United Nations approved the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He continues to show a very shallow knowledge of key geopolitical matters.

Former President George H. W. Bush, whose former chief of staff John Sununu has been ripping Gingrich out of his personal pique at the then-House-speaker's refusal to go along with the Bush tax hikes, which violated Bush's own famed "read my lips: no new taxes" mantra, endorsed Romney on Thursday. I don't know that that's going to have a huge impact.

Doctor What

"What this country really needs, right now, is a doctor."
--The Master, Doctor Who

Perhaps so. But Dr. Paul is not the Doctor.

The situation in Iowa has become much less clear. Romney, who is not moving anywhere that I see, despite all his spending -- both from his official campaign and from the super PAC he deplores but wouldn't dream of disavowing (run, naturally, by his 2008 campaign aides and funded by his backers) -- and heightened activity, continues to have big problems there. But Dr. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman, is moving up and may be in a lead or tie with Gingrich. His move is based entirely on young voters. Among older voters, those who historically participate, he is far behind. Will these younger voters turn out for Paul? Do they know much about him?

As one of the ultimate fringe candidates, Paul has received little serious attention, and thus little serious scrutiny, from the media or from the people he is running against. The reality is that Paul does not stand up to scrutiny.

First, there is the matter of his ideology, which would largely dismantle the government we know and rely on. And there is his geopolitical stance, which is similar to Dennis Kucinich's. Paul is so isolationist as to veer into anti-Americanism, blaming the U.S. for terrorist attacks on Americans and accepting Iran's say-so about its nuclear program, while dismissing United Nations findings about its nuclear weapons aspect.

That would be a big problem in the Democratic Party, much less the Republican Party.

The Texas Ranger

It's obvious that Republican voters want to nominate someone other than Mitt Romney, stalled all year at a fifth to a quarter of primary support. Texas Governor Rick Perry seemed the perfect fit.

There was just one problem. He, ah, didn't seem to be all that bright.

Now, I have met Perry and talked with him. He's a likeable rogue. And while he's what you would expect of a very average student at a non-elite university, he seemed smart enough to run for office, with proper preparation.

But he wasn't prepared. And he chose to run after having major back surgery. As someone who has had serious back pain, a problem solved by a weightlifting and stretching regimen, I know how distracting and tiring it can be. And that was without surgery.

So I'm sympathetic to Perry's plight. Even though it's deprived me of the fun of writing about a candidate who gave every promise of coming off as a real life version of Stephen King's infamous Greg Stillson.

The Mean Girl

Michele Bachmann. Well, she was fun to watch for a while, with her grammatically improved version of the Sarah Palin program of mean-spirited far right nonsense. But Perry ended her hopes on the day of her greatest triumph.

She won that silly Iowa Straw Poll that the news media always goes nuts over. On the very day that Perry chose to announce his candidacy before the Red State bloggers network in Charleston, South Carolina. The place where the Confederacy started the Civil War.

She just couldn't compete with the drama of a Texas governor who wanted to secede from the Union after the election of the first black president stepping on her great moment with still more Confederate atmospherics.

The Mysterious Stranger

What do you do when you've lost your swing state seat in the U.S. Senate in a landslide? Why, run for president, naturally. That's what ex-Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, semi-darling of the the ultra-neocon faction, decided to do.

For the life of me, I don't know why, even though I know all too well how wacky some politicians can be. So I think of him as the Mysterious Stranger in the race.

Which, of course, was the title of Mark Twain's posthumous final novel. Which was about, well, Satan. Which is about what Santorum would have to be to pull off any sort of miracle showing in this race. Not that I think of Santorum in any such light. He's just such a mysterious cipher to me that it was the best I could think of.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

That would be Jon Huntsman. Who appears to have arrived at the wrong house at the wrong time.

He set out to run as a different kind of Republican, with hopes for a big breakthrough in New Hampshire. Which is like what my old boss Gary Hart did.

But Huntsman was Barack Obama's ambassador to China. Hart was never Ronald Reagan's ambassador to NATO.

And the Republicans of today despise Obama even more than the Democrats then despised Reagan.

How's the Race to Casa Blanca playing so far?

A December 16th Gallup Poll on popular expectations for the show, er, 2012 election season, indicates that voters are, well, not all that wowed.

And that would be putting it diplomatically.

Think of the passengers in the car saying: "Are we there yet?"

Oh, and it's not a matter of folks who are not getting enough attention from the candidates.

In fact, the voters who are getting the most attention are the ones who are already most sick of the campaign.

With such a colorful cast, it's a pity.

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