02/24/2012 06:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Debating in Disarray: Searching for Some Clarity in the Republican Presidential Mess

If Wednesday night was the last Republican presidential debate, it sure was another missed opportunity. And a great example of the deep disarray afflicting the Republican field at this stage of the race.

What do we know, in this period after the last debate and before Tuesday's must-win primaries for Mitt Romney?

* Rick Santorum makes only a so-so frontrunner.

In the latest Gallup Poll, Santorum has expanded his lead over Romney among Republicans nationally. Santorum now leads Romney, 36% to 26%. Gingrich, the former leader, is now a distant third at 13%. Paul, his much-hyped libertarian uprising having fallen short even in lightly-attended caucus states, brings up the rear with 11%.

Santorum is an effective speaker and a good debater. He has a generally pleasant manner yet carries some authority. But he allowed himself to be thrown off his game by Romney's relentless attacks in his first debate as the frontrunner.

He can't have been surprised by Romney's approach. It's what Romney does when he's in trouble. He doesn't play up the passion of his positive message, such as it is, he launches attacks.

Days before a must-win primary in his home state of Michigan, Mitt Romney highlighted his staunchly supply-side economic plan in what was billed as a major campaign speech delivered at a cavernous and largely empty football stadium in Detroit.

* Ron Paul is Romney's de facto ally.

Paul again showed himself to be Romney's wing man. Rather than criticize the notorious flip-flopper Romney, Paul instead attacked the staunchly conservative Santorum as a "fake" conservative. Santorum seemed a bit taken aback that Paul would do this to his face. He should not have been surprised.

Paul's extreme laissez-faire economic philosophy gives pseudo-intellectual cover for Romney's Wall Street economics, which are all about financialized capitalism and how anyone with any criticism of it, even after the disasters of the past several years, is a socialist. And his millions in funds from zealous supporters are employed to attack Romney's chief rivals.

Paul, who was unintentionally amusing in his denunciation of any spending on foreign aid during the debate -- gosh gee, why in the globally interconnected world of the 21st century would we have a foreign policy? -- is also attacking Santorum with TV ads. He did that with Newt Gingrich as well, when Gingrich rose to supplant Romney's frontrunnership.

But he doesn't go after Romney, whose all-over-the-lot politics and deep establishmentarianism would be a massive target for a genuinely anti-establishment candidate.

* Romney must win in impressive fashion in his home state Michigan and in Arizona, home to a large Mormon population.

Both these states were viewed as mortal locks, easy big wins for Romney, just a few weeks ago.

The fact that he is in some danger of losing both, one of which is the state in which his father George was the popular governor and car company CEO, is a measure of how weak a putative frontrunner Romney always has been, the relentless conventional wisdom of the past year notwithstanding.

Eking out a pair of wins won't do for Romney, not in these states.

* Big-time Republicans are deeply troubled by the current field.

While the Republican disarray plays out, complete with Newt Gingrich having another $12 million-plus to spend on Super Tuesday primaries next month, some top Republicans are, as I expected, looking at the possibility of a new candidate for the presidency.

Names I hear being mentioned are Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush.

The only one who impresses me particularly is neither the jockey nor the sumo wrestler but the brother.

Of course, he has one rather large problem. His name. And I don't mean Jeb.

If only his more likable brother hadn't been elected governor in his state first. But he was. And then, of course, the presidency. Which no one in these Republican debates even mentions.

But Jeb Bush has skills. The other two? Not so much.

Daniels is W's budget director who assured that the Iraq War would practically pay for itself.

Christie, well, Christie is someone who shows that there is a fine line between being cleverly candid and being a loudmouth. Were he not from New Jersey, i.e., within the penumbra of the New York media market, I doubt there would be quite the media fascination with him that there is.

* There are several ways in which this race can play out.

Gingrich has slid precipitously in the polls with relentless attacks against him and the ascent of Santorum, but his fresh funding, much of it from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson in a big check to a super PAC, gives him viability going forward.

Is Adelson trying to help Gingrich solely, or is this a bank shot to help Romney avoid being defeated straight up by Santorum, as some suggest?

Romney still clearly fears Gingrich, however, as well as Santorum.

He and his de facto ally Ron Paul caused the only remaining pre-Super Tuesday debate, in Gingrich's home state of Georgia, to be canceled by CNN when the pair pulled out of the event.

Indeed, it is quite possible for Santorum and Gingrich to both flourish in different states, with Gingrich stronger in the South and Santorum stronger in the Midwest.

This has happened in previous presidential nomination races.

All of which would serve to prevent Romney, or perhaps anyone else, from gaining enough of a head of steam in largely proportional representation contests to lock down the nomination.

Afghan officials said Friday that at least seven people were killed in protests around the country against the burning of Qurans at a U.S. air base, bringing the overall death toll after four days of demonstrations to at least 20, including two Americans killed by an Afghan soldier.

* The media running these debates won't use them to engage on the big issues.

As the seriously disarrayed Republican field plays out its dynamics, major geopolitical crises are unfolding, bedeviling an otherwise increasingly in the driver's seat for re-election Barack Obama. The UN nuclear watchdog's visit to Iran ended ahead of schedule this week when Tehran refused to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors any access to key nuclear facilities. Thus further ratcheting up the crisis, and making it ever more difficult for Iran's apologists to claim that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Which is not the same as justifying a war, mind you.

The Syrian crisis, which is linked, with Iranian naval vessels returning from a trip to its ally Syria through the Suez Canal -- which the previous Egyptian government denied Tehran access to -- also ratchets up with continued Assad regime assaults on protesters and journalists. The Friends of Syria, aka the International Contact Group on Syria, more than 70 mostly Western and Arab nations, convened Friday in Tunisia, where the Arab Awakening began.

And Afghanistan is wracked by deadly protests after US troops burned Islamic holy materials at Bagram Air Base.

Plenty to talk about, in other words.

But John King, a journalist whose idea of incisive substantive questioning is asking Newt Gingrich about his past private life -- as he so notoriously did last month -- but not asking warhawk Gingrich how a war with Iran makes sense, didn't get into it beyond a few buzzwords and very pat answers.

That's just not good enough for a nation in complex and troubling times.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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