03/01/2012 02:07 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

2012 Primary Panic: It's The Candidates, Not The Process

Even before the first votes of the Michigan Primary were cast, it was becoming clear that Romney winning the contest wasn't going to cut it, in terms of silencing the panicked voices insisting that if things took a turn for the muddled, some dark horse candidate could be injected into the race at some late stage to become some sort of frontrunner. Let's recall Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who described a "whisper campaign" among "top Republicans" that bespoke "an emphasis on having someone ready if on Super Tuesday ... Mitt Romney does not manage to break loose, and to have that candidate ready to come in." The standard had clearly shifted -- now Mitt Romney had to "break loose" on Super Tuesday to settle everyone's panicky nerves.

Of course, the problem there was that with few delegates on offer on Super Tuesday, and an array of contests in which different candidates were expected to perform well, the chances that Romney will "break loose" are very remote. But his inability to do so has some in the Republican party blaming the primary process itself for preventing a quick end to the nomination season. As Alicia Cohn reported, John McCain is just one "high profile Republican" who's "raised concern that the lack of unity around one nominee is strengthening President Obama's reelection chances." All of which has forced RNC Chair Reince Priebus to push back and insist that the drawn-out process is good for the party.

But it's actually Priebus' predecessor who's been providing the Real Talk on this issue. As Benjy Sarlin reported yesterday:

While top Republicans are tearing their hair out watching the Republican primaries slowly grind their way to a relatively small Super Tuesday, the RNC chair who designed this year's calendar, Michael Steele, says the process is working exactly as planned. It's the candidates who are the problem.


"The problem is that ... the Romney campaign thought this would be the short, quick battle, and they're not necessarily ready for a campaign that's longer so the negative campaigning hits and hits hard," Steele said. "The Death Star imagery I think is very appropriate here since it is sort of taking out that moon and then that planet to clear a pathway to the nomination."

Over at The Hill's Pundit Blog, Democratic strategist Peter Fenn makes a similar point:

First, there was Bachmann: a walking disaster as a possible candidate. Then there was Perry -- boy, that shooting star burned out fast. Of course, Herman Cain, the non-traditional candidate, was non-traditional for a reason. And Newt Gingrich was electrifying in the sense that he would fry the Republicans. So we are left with Santorum as the alternative to Romney. Even though he wants to have his cake and eat it too on social issues as well as on religion and the culture wars, Republicans know that women and the suburbs would run from him in droves in a general election.

So the panic that all these candidates caused among establishment Republicans is coupled with the dislike that rank-and-file voters have of Romney. This is the "none of the above" factor we are seeing increasingly in polls as Republicans express their unhappiness with the entire field.

I think this is important to note -- the discontent here is over the candidates in the process, not the process itself. Imagine, if you will, a 2012 primary season in which the GOP elites got all the candidates they really wanted: Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, maybe a John Thune or a Paul Ryan.

With that field, who agonizes over the process? A lengthy period of time in which this collection of candidates gradually trades delegates would be something that all of those currently panicking would actually cherish. Mitt Romney would likely be fighting to stay in the top tier. Santorum and Gingrich would have remained mired in the low single digits. Bill Kristol wouldn't be so emo.

The bottom line is that the establishment's dislike of Mitt Romney is only rivaled by its dislike of his rivals. What you see in this need for Romney to "break loose" is a demand for him to provide some "sign" to restore their faith in the frontrunner with whom Republicans are stuck. If Romney could only take this race by the balls and end it quickly, the logic seems to go, his critics would be able to make peace with him as their candidate. But the process was designed to provide a means to put the GOP's top brands on a lengthy display, to drive up enthusiasm. The right candidates didn't run. None of this is Reince Priebus' fault.

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