With his narrow victory over Ron Paul in the Maine caucuses, Mitt Romney may have re-established himself once again as the fragile front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
But after losing three states to Rick Santorum and falling behind him by a 38 percent to 23 percent margin in the latest Public Policy Polling survey, the former Massachusetts governor's inevitability appears to be matched only by his unelectability.
From the start, Romney's candidacy has been defined by two dynamics.
On the one hand, there's little doubt that he is absolutely unacceptable to right-wing Republicans, which is to say the people who actually comprise a majority of activists in the nominating process.
On the other hand, I can't remember the last time a serious candidate for national office such as Romney was lucky enough to run against such a weak field of competitors. Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scarcely more credible than Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Paul is running for his own purposes, which do not include becoming president.
It's because of my "one hand" that I believed until late last fall that Romney would never win the nomination. It's because of my "other hand" that I gradually came to believe Romney had to win -- and that, in fact, the health of our democracy depended on his keeping genuine loathsome characters such as Gingrich and Santorum as far away from the White House as possible.
After Florida, it looked like it was finally over, and that sullen Republicans would grudgingly do what they were told. After Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, what will happen next is anyone's guess. Romney"s craven speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference won't help him much, even if it contributed to his winning its straw poll over the weekend.
Romney's larger problem is that his never-ending repositioning on issues has left him with an unappetizing choice between trying to look like he believes in something -- anything -- or giving in to his urge to tell whatever audience he's speaking to exactly what he imagines it wants to hear. For instance, have a look at the Sunday New York Times story on how Romney shifted from supporting to opposing abortion rights. The late Ted Kennedy was, if anything, being charitable when he once referred to Romney's position as "multiple choice."
If there's still an authentic Romney underneath all the phony exteriors he's tried on and discarded, then it is probably someone without a real political orientation -- a pragmatic problem-solver, too liberal for Republicans (outside of Massachusetts), too conservative for Democrats, too bloodless and unappealing to be able to turn those qualities into a virtue, the way Ross Perot briefly did two decades ago.
I imagine Romney will turn the battleship around and aim the cannons of his super PAC at Santorum. I'd guess that we'll be hearing about disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's (as yet unproven) connection to the former Pennsylvania senator. It may work. And yes, if Romney does somehow manage to stagger to the nomination, he'll still be a more formidable candidate against President Obama than any other Republican.
But what we're watching now is a strange and disturbing dynamic, as Romney -- someone whose qualifications and experience are impressive, whatever his shortcomings as a candidate -- tries to pick his way through the ruins of a once-great political party that has collapsed into a vestigial appendage of the Fox News Channel.
If Romney succeeds, the larger question yet to be answered is whether the Republican nomination will prove to be a prize not worth having.