A See-Saw Campaign?

Everybody was expecting a quick knockout in the GOP nominating contest this year. After a year of debating, it appeared that Mitt Romney would sweep the table after winning New Hampshire and seeming to win Iowa. Now, people are looking to see if Newt Gingrich can K.O. Romney, winning Florida after his stunning upset in South Carolina.

But, as in a boxing bout where everyone is looking for a big punch and a quick end, this fight may frustrate everyone and go the distance. Not to a brokered convention. That won’t happen. The winner-take-all rules the Republican National Committee imposed on primaries and caucuses held after April 1 militate against that outcome. But it will be a see-saw primary battle with one candidate the seeming winner only to watch his rival come storming back.

If Gingrich wins in Florida, look for Romney to win Nevada (one-third Mormon) and Michigan (where his father was governor). Then look for Newt to make it competitive again. And don’t count out Rick Santorum. With Gingrich and Romney throwing punches at each other, Santorum — the odd man out — will look better and better, as he did in the debate on Monday night. One cannot even count out Ron Paul, much as I would like to do so, because he will show strong in caucus states where the intensity of his support from young voters will be in evidence.

Why the see-saw quality to the process?

Almost all voters agree about almost everything about almost all the candidates. They just assess the facts differently.

— Most agree that Romney offers the best chance to attract Independent voters.

— Most believe that Gingrich would do the better job of summoning passion and debating Obama.

— Voters largely think that Santorum is the most conservative and worry that Romney might flip-flop back to moderation.

— Everyone agrees that Gingrich is the brightest and most experienced, although many believe him to be ethically challenged.

— No one discounts the possibility of a Gingrich implosion, in which some creative idea would pop into his head and come out of his mouth without proper consideration.

So with a virtual consensus on the facts, voters just differ in their interpretation of them; with each primary night, a kind of buyer’s remorse is likely to set in. After each Romney win, voters will worry that he will flip-flop and wonder if his looks and charm has not blinded them to the reality of his past moderation. And after Gingrich wins a state, voters will ask themselves if they have just handed the election to Obama by nominating a loose cannon.

Even the inveterate supporters of either candidate have to admit to their private worries.

And Santorum? Voters will wonder whether he’s too far to the right to win the election. Is he too young and inexperienced? And who is he anyway?

In 1980, Democratic primary voters disliked both candidates Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. When one won a primary, the other would suddenly look good. When Kennedy won, memories of Chappaquiddick would surface. After each Carter win, voters recalled his ineptitude and weakness.

Now most voters like all three candidates, and they shuttle among them not out of antipathy, but out of fear that their horse may not be the one to beat Obama. Republicans and Independents are so desperate to defeat the current administration that they are hesitant to take a chance and worried about their nominee.

This hesitation will make for a maddening process and no quick knockouts. But at some point, the music will stop, and the candidate without a seat will lose this political game of musical chairs.

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