After a tumultuous and bilious few weeks, the race for the Republican nomination is pretty much in the same place it was before South Carolina and Florida voted. In the first state, Mitt Romney saw a large initial lead in the polls turn into a landslide for Newt Gingrich. The same thing happened in reverse in the second. Romney is again the favorite to win the nomination.
Some of the attacks on each side have lacked merit. Pro-Romney ads have distorted Gingrich’s position on abortion and insinuated, falsely, that ethical failings drove Gingrich out of office. A pro-Gingrich PAC notoriously produced a film full of untruths about Romney’s business record, and Gingrich closed the Florida campaign inventing a bizarre tale about Romney’s insensitivity to Holocaust survivors. In the main, though, the candidates’ main arguments against each other have been perfectly reasonable ones, having to do with their records, temperaments, and electability.
All of the remaining candidates say they will keep going until the convention, and they may mean it. We are not among those who fear that the continuing battle is going to leave deep wounds that weaken the eventual nominee. The Republican party is not seriously split over any major ideological issue: Nobody on any of the debate stages has been making the case for Obamacare, or social liberalism. In this respect its divisions resemble those between the Obama and Clinton factions in 2008, which mainly concerned who would be the most successful champion of liberalism rather than what that liberalism should do.
Romney, once again the front-runner, devoted his remarks on the night of his victory in Florida to a sharp critique of President Obama. What he has not yet done is find a conservative cause to make his own and fight for, as Santorum has with the defense of blue-collar families. Romney’s short-term imperative was to tear down Gingrich, but his larger challenge is to slowly build conservative enthusiasm for himself.