Even two months ago, the notion that Rick Santorum could pose a serious challenge to the financial preeminence of Mitt Romney in the race for the Republican nomination (much less actually leading Romney in many polls) would have been dismissed as fanciful hugger-mugger.
And yet here we are and, well, here we are.
It's yet another worrying sign of where what passes for today's Republican orthodoxy has taken the party of the once-Big Tent. More than that (assuming Santorum actually snakes the nomination), it also portents just how nasty the election fight is liable to get when it comes to the igniting of religious brush fires in the electorate.
In fact, we got a preview of these electoral "God Games" last week after the Obama administration unveiled the requirement that free birth control be included as part of the Affordable Care Act. The subsequent noise-storm over making the new requirement comport with the religious beliefs of Catholic-affiliated organizations reached a boiling point with Mike Huckabee's "We are all Catholic now" pronouncement at last week's CPAC conference.
But while the "religious liberty" angle is par for the course if you're running for the Republican nod in 2012, Santorum has expanded its scope by lacing his rhetoric with enough dog whistles about President Obama's "phony ideology" to elicit the intended Pavlovian effect from his faithful.
More worrisome though, and as David Paul Kuhn makes clear with his exhaustive look at Santorum's many far right, hard right social stances, unlike the perpetually politicking Mitt Romney, Santorum's not just trolling for votes here. He seems to actually believe every regressive, repressive, and downright illogical belief he espouses.
That the impending election might end up evolving (er, being creatively designed) into a referendum on these culture war issues, as well as the broader role of dogmatism in our politics, is certainly an interesting prospect -- and one that raises the stakes higher than a Romney/Obama contest otherwise might -- but it it sure does make me wonder what the Republicans are thinking if this is indeed where they're headed.