Donna Brazile

A Disappearing Act

With three resounding victories behind him, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in a hurry to pivot to the general election. But, Houston, there's a problem.

Congressman Ron Paul persists in the race for the Republican presidential nomination because he's on a mission. "The truth is," he told CBS's "Face the Nation," "I'm trying to save the Republican Party from themselves."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of course, continues to look for outrageous or provocative things to say that will once again propel him back into contention.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will slog on with the fervor of a Sunday school teacher. He still believes he can score more victories in his home state of Pennsylvania and a string of Southern state primaries in May. He might be right. For now, he too will resist calls to quit.

Paul is a doctor. But he may be unable to rescue the Republican Party from the self-inflicted damage of its protracted primary struggle. The GOP isn't just split; it is splintered. It continues to seek success by purging itself of star players and by offering a budget so austere and unfair that someone compared it to "the longest suicide note in history."

Romney won Maryland over Santorum by double digits. However, his opponents' combined percentages (Romney 49.1, Santorum 28.9, Gingrich 10.9, Paul 9.5, and others 1 percent) show he lost Maryland by three-tenths of a percent to fiscal and social conservatives. He won Wisconsin by five percent, yet lost to his combined Republican opposition by 15 points.

Last weekend, Public Policy Polling told its Twitter followers, "This may be the last late Sunday night GOP poll release we do. Just not real interesting anymore."

Are they kidding? Santorum just might win the Pennsylvania Republican primary, and he has betting chances of winning the Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina primaries. If, that is, he can withstand the negative ads sponsored by Romney's Super PAC.

The Republican Party has found a way to combine the most morbidly fascinating slow train wreck ever with a Houdini disappearing act. The GOP is intent on achieving the impossibility of expanding its vote by shrinking its base.

In 2012, the Republican Party is a conservative movement party increasingly purged of moderates and dissent. It apparently envisions a future where it loses women, young people, Latinos, the elderly, union members, people who believe in science, gays and African-Americans. They are engaged in a demographic disappearing act. How can they win elections in the 21st century if they not only have nothing to say to these groups but actively push them away? Answer: Slime the opposition with negative ads.

The horror is, they might pull it off if voters, fed up with Congress, rising gas and food prices, and faced with a narrative that paints "the Other" on President Obama's forehead, decide Republicans are the only alternative to their woes.

After Sen. John McCain's loss to Obama in 2008, his campaign manager Steve Schmidt told a reporter: "There has to be a (Republican) message and a vision that is compelling to people in order for them to come back and to give consideration to the Republican Party again."

What Washington Republicans decided would be their compelling message was a 24/7 campaign to blame everything on Obama and simply wish him to fail.

Yet, defeating Obama remains the only vision other than re-treading the failed economic policies of the previous administration and Congresses. In truth, the primary reason Romney leads among Republicans is because the base has bought the message that he can beat Obama: "Vote for me because my opponent is evil personified."

That message goes over well with red-meat Republicans. Even so, rock-ribbed Republican conservatives don't trust Romney. If he weren't leading in delegates, Romney would be targeted as a RINO -- Republican in Name Only.

This distrust stems from Romney being the ultimate opportunist. The joke goes that a man tells a companion, "I'd like to introduce a conservative, a moderate, and a liberal." But only Romney is standing there. This reality is why Romney's opponents will not withdraw, and why they will still attract voters after his Wisconsin victory, though fewer and fewer as the schedule winds down.

To woo the Republicans who like Santorum and Gingrich, Romney must wear a conservative tight-jacket while struggling to appeal to independents. If he moves too far to the middle, he'll have to depend on conservatives' deep-seated disdain for President Obama to keep them from leaving the fold.

Romney will be forced to run on a platform that he cannot draft, while claiming the opposite. So here's the real struggle going on in the Republican primaries: Will conservatives fall in love or just fall in line? Will they go door to door to encourage their neighbors to vote for Romney or just hold their nose at the ballot box?

Like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, the Republican Party of 2012 is fading due to its exclusion of others, until only its smile is visible -- the one offered by its inevitable nominee, Willard Mitt Romney.

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