GOP presidential race: What’s the rush?

In 2008, the Democrats were blessed with two candidates the party’s rank-and-file admired almost as much as the press corps did. Ultimately Barack Obama, the hope-and-change guy, was more popular than Hillary Clinton if for no other reason than that the former first lady came with so much baggage — mostly in the form of her husband, but also some scandals of her own — while Obama was a fresh start. But everyone let that contest play out. There was little urgency over the need to pick a candidate as soon as possible.

This time, the GOP field is not getting the same courtesy. There’s an almost manic rush to pick a winner, or at least a GOP front-runner. And while it would be tempting to put the blame squarely on the liberal media or some other convenient villain, the truth is that it’s the right that is largely to blame.

Though to say so is essentially blaming the victim. In 2008, the prevailing Democratic attitude toward the Obama-Clinton race was, “If only we could vote for both of them!” Right now, a significant number of conservatives feel about the Gingrich-Romney contest the same way Henry Kissinger famously felt about the Iran-Iraq war: It’s a pity only one of them can lose.

While one can find passionate fans of every candidate — even, according to rumors, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman– the fact is that none of the contenders wows the base, and the base desperately wants to be wowed.

This is an important distinction. There’s a lot of talk about how the base doesn’t like the candidates. I don’t think that’s true. The sense I get from talking to large numbers of conservatives is that the base doesn’t like their choices, but they don’t actually hate the candidates. In other words, they want to be swept off their feet. That’s why for most of the past year, the voters have been listening to the official contenders but somewhat rudely refusing to make eye contact as they look over their shoulders hoping someone more exciting — Chris Christie! Paul Ryan! Marco Rubio! — just might enter the room.

It’s not that they don’t like any of these candidates so much they’d rather President Obama win. It’s that people don’t want to fall in like; they want to fall in love.

This is undoubtedly the reason why Newt Gingrich is enjoying a fantastic surge these days, one that could well carry him to the nomination. Despite all of his shortcomings and his troubling history, he at least romances the GOP electorate. With his endless string of grandiose adverbs — fundamentally, radically, profoundly, etc.-ly — and his promises to dazzle us in his debates with Obama, Gingrich is the bad-boy suitor of the race. I know he’s no good for me, many of the voters are in effect saying, but he’s just so much fun.

Romney, meanwhile, is the kind of guy you bring home to mother. Everyone knows that he’s sober and responsible. According to his wife, his biggest vice is that he drinks low-fat chocolate milk. His problem is that he doesn’t know how to woo the voters. He can say the words, but he can’t sell them. He’s a bit like Bob Dole, who in 1995 told GOP leaders, “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want me to be.”

Herman Cain — who after a bizarrely choreographic marital summit, announced over the weekend he was suspending his campaign — was the one candidate who understood how to romance voters wholesale. Ironic, then, that his political career ended thanks to allegations he didn’t understand how to romance women retail.

I and my fellow conservative pundits haven’t helped anything. We’re constantly insisting that so-and-so’s campaign is done or that he or she now has no chance. We’ve been about as right as anybody would be if he simply guessed randomly. Certainly, no one predicted Gingrich as the front-runner after his self-immolation in the spring. One reason for the pundit drumbeat is that we’re probably just as eager to see Obama lose as the average caucus-goer. But another reason is that the pundits are working from the old calendar. Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina primary has won the nomination. A winner of either Iowa or New Hampshire (but never both) always wins in South Carolina. And so on.

But the rules this year are different. Many states won’t be winner-take-all. Finishing in second place doesn’t earn you a set of steak knives; it wins you delegates. That means there’s still plenty of time for Romney to grow on people or for Gingrich to stumble again or for some other candidate to rise. This could go on for a while.

That’s what happened in 2008 with the Democrats. Hillary Clinton didn’t endorse Obama until a couple months before the Democratic convention. And, after a bruising primary battle, Obama inherited an energized base eager to retake the White House. I am positive the GOP nominee will enjoy a similar inheritance, whoever that might be.

(Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)

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