The GOP race gets messy

OK, I give up.

About a week ago, I wrote a column making a case for Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee. My argument was aimed at fellow conservatives who just can’t get their minds — or at least their hearts — around a Romney candidacy. The details aren’t important right now (and they’re easy enough to look up with the interwebs these days).

The reason I wrote the column in the first place was that I felt the cold steel barrel of reality’s revolver pressing up against the back of my head, saying “write it.”

Romney’s going to be the nominee. He’s vastly preferable to Obama. If he’s the inevitable nominee, then better for conservatives to make peace with the idea.

And then, lo and behold, Rick Santorum bursts into the motel room, knocks the gun from reality’s hands and puts reality in a chokehold. “Not so fast.”

Even if Romney becomes the nominee, it’s difficult to exaggerate the significance of Santorum’s trifecta this week in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. In 2008, Romney won Minnesota by a mile (if you define a mile as 19 percentage points), winning more than half the counties. On Tuesday, he lost every county and came in third place. In Missouri, he lost every county, and Santorum won every county. In Colorado, where Romney was the heavy favorite, he lost by 5 percentage points, 40-35. In 2008, Romney won Colorado with 60 percent of the vote; he won 56 counties out of 64. On Tuesday, he captured a mere 16 counties in Colorado.

The lamentations of Team Romney count for little. They prattle about low turnout, as if the “front-runner’s” failure to excite the base is an asset. They mutter that these were beauty contests and non-binding votes where no delegates were awarded.

True enough. But no delegates were awarded in the Iowa Caucuses either. Romney seemed to think those mattered. More importantly, these three states offered a huge referendum on Romney, and the crowd rose up to say, “Meh.”

Team Santorum understandably wants everyone to believe that this was a huge endorsement of their guy’s message and candidacy. “I don’t stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Santorum proclaimed Tuesday night in Missouri. “I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

I’m sure he’s sincere. Indeed, that’s one of the things people genuinely admire about Santorum: He doesn’t need to fake his sincerity about anything.

But I don’t really buy it. The single biggest factor in this campaign remains the fact that the base of the GOP is uncomfortable with Romney and refuses to believe that it can’t do better than the guy who invented RomneyCare and talks to conservatives like he’s reading from a right-wing Berlitz phrasebook. He rails about “Washington politicians” — which looks great on paper but sounds somewhat ridiculous coming from Romney, given that he seems more like a Washington politician than any of the Republican opponents left in the field.

The irony is that, in a weird way, Santorum has many of the same problems Romney has. Superficially, he looks like an anti-Romney when it comes to personality. Romney often sounds like HAL refusing to open the bomb-bay doors in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while Santorum overflows with passion and emotion.

But simply having an authentic personally doesn’t necessarily mean you have a presidential one. All too often, Santorum looks like he has a thumbtack in his shoe that he presses down on to fool the polygraph. He can be dour and resentful.

Likewise, on substance, if you were going to design a GOP candidate to fit the moment, it wouldn’t be Santorum. The difference between him and George W. Bush: Santorum’s deadly serious about compassionate conservatism. He is honestly and forthrightly committed to using government to realize his moral vision for America. That’s his prerogative, and he has many good (and some very bad) arguments on his side.

But, suffice it to say, he is not the one the tea partiers have been waiting for.

Now, the race is just a mess. I feel like the revolver in reality’s hand is full of blanks, and anyone who thinks they know what happens next is stabbing in the dark. I could live with either man being the nominee. And while I would happily vote for either in a contest against Obama, I honestly have no idea who would be more electable. Frankly, I find the prospect of any of them becoming the nominee worrisome and hard to imagine. A brokered convention seems ever more plausible — and desirable.

(Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book “The Tyranny of Clichés.” 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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