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The Race Going into South Carolina



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The primary race that has just started and should still be wide open is already supposedly almost over — but still isn’t quite.

The conventional wisdom is that Mitt Romney — bleeding a bit by the successful, counter-conservative anti-Bain commercials, and raising eyebrows by his play-it-safe, wooden showing in the recent debate — still has so much more organization and money that he cannot be caught. By now he has convinced fence-sitting voters that he would not embarrass them in September with either a blonde out of his past or a wacky proposal that will cause outrage but lead to little real new policy: He is not great, but good enough to beat Obama. He may be caricatured as a blue-blood Bush I, but also is trusted as a fixer who knew what he was doing, and so will profit the U.S. the way he once profited for himself.

And the conventional wisdom continues that Republicans (and even Romney supporters) nonetheless sigh that sometimes Gingrich (and Gingrich alone in the present field) can rise to Reagan’s rhetoric in the debates and might, if nominated, repeat those occasional dazzling performances with an outclassed Barack Obama — but is otherwise too erratic and with too much baggage to win the nomination. (Everyone seems to have a Democratic or Independent cousin who at least claims that this election he/she just might vote against Obama, but only for a Romney.)

And the thinking goes on that, although the current negative advertising seems to be surpassing the Obama-Clinton invective of 2008, the party will unite around the nominee as the Democrats did in 2008 and as the Republicans did in 2000, and that perhaps a successful Romney will not be a Dewey/Dole/McCain on the stump, or an elder Bush in office (or if he proves to be, it would still be better than the a second Obama term).

All the above seems the general narrative, but is still not quite certain. For all the hype, we are still at the very beginning, not the middle of the primaries. Gingrich still has a long-shot chance to outshine Romney again in the debate to assure the voters that the disparity is real and permanent, to have Santorum and Perry exit to unify the conservative opposition, to assume his critics will forgive his insane anti-Bain commercials on grounds that they worked, to avoid another outburst or embarrassing disclosure, and to point to polls that suddenly he does about as well as Romney against Obama. Unlikely — but not impossible.

And behind all this looms the fact that an out-of-sight and quiet Obama has risen back in the polls, the level of suicidal invective is fodder for the Democrats, and no Republican candidate has spelled out a vision of precise policies to save America from insolvency at home and irrelevancy abroad. So there is a holding pattern of sorts, as Republican voters wonder whether Romney will have a moment of animation in a Gingrich-like debate outing, hope that all the attacks will lead someday lead to shaking hands and that-was-then-this-is-now unity, and pray that a candidate can energize and enthuse rather than be the least unattractive of the alternatives.



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