For months, we have all watched the Republican nomination campaign unfold as Mitt vs. Not Mitt. Mitt Romney has in some ways floated above the fray as all the other candidates have vied to win the title of Not Mitt. But for the conservative voters who make up 75 percent of Republican primary and caucus voters who do not want Romney as the nominee, the process has been a bit like an extended nightmare version of speed dating.
You call the number of a new person to sit at the table across from you, and it is love at first sight—until you realize that he or she has only a distant relationship with the truth. The next one who sits down is even more attractive—until he opens his mouth and reveals that he is dumb as a post. The third one is fantastic—until you discover he is an inveterate cheater. Chastened and disillusioned, you call up the next striking beauty, clearly the dating winner, and you are smitten and ready to commit to a long-term relationship—until you find out that he is a serial bigamist. Finally, exhausted and with only one number left for the evening, you turn to the plain one sitting in the corner. It’s a date! Thus comes Rick Santorum, who is likely to emerge as one of the winners tonight in Iowa. But no one has done the background check on him yet. Just as with the serial disappointments, Santorum has warts, or worse, that will emerge. But his timing, and luck, thus far have been impeccable.
At the same time, Romney is very lucky that his most serious rival, Newt Gingrich, has now faltered (with great assistance from Romney’s campaign-directed—er, independent, super PAC), that Ron Paul, a non-starter as a nominee, has continued to strengthen, and that the other candidates are all going to be tempted to stay in longer and divide the conservative vote. And for Romney, a new theme is emerging among some establishment Republican conservatives to try to make him the real long-term partner of the Not Mitt crowd—that yes, he has no real principles, but he is pliable—and therefore you staunch conservatives can do business with him. Romney’s greatest weakness, his lack of any core, is being touted as a strength. This is the most unusual political courtship process I have ever seen; where is Margaret Mead when we need her?