We will have to wait to see whether Rick Santorum’s jump to a virtual dead heat with Mitt in Iowa is enough to bring out the anti-non-Mitt assassination squads. Santorum is an unusually fervent Roman Catholic for a presidential candidate and such an emergence would doubtless treat us all, one more time, to Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times dusting off their former little selves as intellectually abused Catholic choir girls and Garry Wills acolytes in dogmatic schism. Who better to impose the inverse auto-da-fé than the twin Zouave giggly snipers of the Times?
For those of us who take an interest in the vagaries of the Roman Church, the virtuoso performances of Ms. Collins and Ms. Dowd as earnest, questing papists, almost heartbroken at the failure of the last two popes to undergo sex-change operations and turn the Church into a polling organization, and at other, less glaring illiberalities, are like the concluding number in Chicago of Catherene Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger.
Of course, there have been reasonably observant Roman Catholic seekers of national office before, but Al Smith, the Kennedys, Ed Muskie, Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, and Joe Biden were not fueled by the divine fire in the way Rick Santorum is. It would be interesting to see, if he becomes a late-blooming but viable non-Mitt, whether the assassination squads move to larger-bore, higher velocity firepower than they have employed against Mitt’s Mormonism and Newt’s conversion to Catholicism (allegedly after hearing his present wife sing in the National Shrine choir before Pope Benedict). That has just been like Fifth and Park Avenue diners-out whose fish has gone off — looking down their noses in muted distaste. Rick Santorum in full cry could generate a call for the instruments of torture to be shown, and other nostalgic references to the Inquisition.
There is also some suspense over whether Newt Gingrich has been sufficiently bullet-riddled to be left for dead, or whether he will require a final fusillade, like (to keep my feeble cinematic similes going) Bonnie and Clyde, and Sonny Corleone at the turnpike kiosk. He served notice Tuesday night that he will pitch into Mitt for the governor’s negative ad blitz against him when Newt had his 15 minutes as chief non-Mitt. I refuse to take Ron Paul seriously, though I agree with his plan to make the splendid Jim Grant Federal Reserve chairman. Paul’s views on terrorism and foreign policy generally have disqualified him so far, even as target practice for the snipers. The fact that 21 percent of Iowa Republicans voted for someone who thought America had it coming on 9/11 deserves serious analysis, when this campaign is over.
But the gripping drama will be the struggle, which will intensify next week after New Hampshire, between the bandwagoners who will, on behalf of Mitt, behave like a team that has just won the Super Bowl with a dramatic touchdown, dancing jigs, clapping behinds, and embracing like lottery winners; and the naysayers who fail to find the arithmetic, still beat the bushes for live non-Mitts, and start the preliminary linguadental exercises for the greatest American blank-verse epic since Longfellow, on the theme “He can’t close the deal.”
Not to stoop to sacrilege, if Santorum’s levitation is less than an ascension, and Newt is only twitching but otherwise stilled and incapable of taking back support from Mitt in New Hampshire in this payback week, the Republicans will be on a razor’s edge. Unless Jon Huntsman arises in New Hampshire and smites Mitt in his own backyard, it will be a contest that was long traditional in both parties, of whether the frontrunner has the steam to assemble a convention majority before the convention opens.
In such contests, favorite sons held back state delegations to decide whether to be kingmakers, resisters, or dark horses themselves. The mayor of Chicago controlling the Illinois Democrats was the most frequent, but Rick Perry will still have the Texas delegation to deliver and could probably trade them for the vice-presidential nomination, as Democrat John N. Garner did in 1932. The proliferation of primaries, immense expense of campaigns, and decline of local political machines have tended in recent decades to decide races before they got to the conventions. But there have also generally been stronger leading candidates than Mitt: Twenty-five percent or so in Iowa and neck-and-neck with an underfunded turbo-Catholic pitching the evangelicals, and only 4 points ahead of a loopy challenger like Ron Paul (though his fiscal and libertarian ideas have considerable merit), are not going to knock the hat off anyone who doesn’t need headgear to think clearly. There is no real bandwagon now, only the perfervid efforts of the Mittsters to pretend that that is what they are riding, rather than a mud-spattered, rumpled-fendered SUV with some broken springs (but no dog on the roof).