Frank Rich on the National Circus: Mr. ‘Inevitable’ Pummeled Again

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Photo: Marc Piscotty/2012 Getty Images

This is the first of a weekly series, which will appear every Wednesday.

Two caucuses, one primary later: Where are we now?

We are just where we have been. The Republican party does not have a candidate for president. The deck keeps being reshuffled, and different jokers keep popping up to the top. But the 75 percent of the party that does not want Mitt can't and won't coalesce over any of the alternatives. Nor will it warm up to the guy it keeps being told is the "inevitable" front-runner. The lack of GOP enthusiasm for its own field can be seen in its turnout — down again last night, as it was in Romney's Florida victory.

Romney was on a roll. He got crushed. Where does Romney stand now? Were we all overrating the importance of political momentum?
 

Momentum hasn't worked for Romney or Gingrich, and probably won't work for Santorum, either. But the bigger story here is how devastating this loss was for Romney. Yes, these pseudo-primaries were "meaningless." Yes, Romney still has more money, more organization, and more delegates (of the few awarded thus far). But a Washington Post/ABC News poll released just before these contests found that by a margin of more than two to one, Americans say that the more they learn about Mitt, the less they like him, and last night added further proof. The standard interpretation of Mitt's triple defeat on cable news (regardless of network) is that "conservatives rejected Romney." But who exactly isn't rejecting Romney? He couldn't even fill up his headquarters when speaking last night in Denver. And then he gave a talk that reminded anyone who was watching how hollow and fake a candidate he is. He mixed stilted punch lines from his tired anti-Obama script with a bit of hilariously tone-deaf populist posturing — claiming that his father, a fabulously successful auto executive, began his career as some sort of nail-spitting blue-collar carpenter. Hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at these performances. Americans of all stripes seem to abhor Mitt the way nature abhors a vacuum.

But doesn't the GOP Establishment still like Mitt? And won't it keep propping him up?
They are certainly trying to. It was a revealing moment that on CNN last night — at the late hour of 11:20 ET — one of its "expert" talking heads, the former Bush administration flack Ari Fleischer, flatly reassured his credulous fellow panelists that his sources "on the ground" authoritatively told him that Romney would win Colorado. That was the desperate, out-of-touch voice of the GOP Establishment speaking — and again engaging both in denial and wishful thinking. Not long after Fleischer's pronouncement, Mitt lost to Santorum by 5 percent — despite a serious Romney campaign effort in the state and despite having won Colorado in a landslide over McCain four years ago. Fleischer's Dewey-Beats-Truman prediction was another example of the GOP Establishment being clueless about what's happening "on the ground" in its own party or in America. Similarly, another pillar of that Establishment, Peggy Noonan, dismissed Mitt last week as merely an inept stand-in for Jeb Bush — who isn't running — and yet still predicted, illogically, that Obama would lose in the fall. What you see with the GOP Establishment is a bunch of chickens that sense the sky is falling and are running around with their heads cut off.

Does this new Santorum surge mean the religious right isn't dead, after all?
Time for America to start Googling "Santorum" again! If his surge marks a last stand of the much-diminished religious right, the timing could not be more in conflict with American culture right now, from the new victories for same-sex marriage in California and Washington state to the Super Bowl, which was watched by nearly as many Americans as voted in the last presidential election, few or none of whom protested Madonna's homoerotic halftime spectacle. If the GOP wants to run in 2012 by vilifying gay families — or opposing heterosexual contraception — the Democrats are even luckier than it seems.

And finally, whither Newt?
Newt's ego and hatred for Romney will be the gifts that will keep on giving (to Obama) — at least as long as Sheldon Adelson keeps giving him (and/or his unofficial PAC) big checks. Newt has nothing to gain by dropping out. Given his Georgia roots and uninhibited playing of the race card, he may actually fare better in some quarters of the GOP primary electorate in the South than Romney. This race is so askew from its predicted narrative that anything can happen — another Gingrich comeback, or, we can always pray, maybe an independent run by Donald Trump, who could turn on Mitt as quickly as he turns on any celebrity apprentice.