Richard Reeves

The GOP in 2012: Strange Party, Strange Year

LOS ANGELES -- "You pays your money and you takes your choice." Mark Twain used the phrase in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but it probably has its origin in Cockney English.

If you paid your dollar for The New York Times, you read this lead headline:

"Romney Regains Stride With Victories in Two States"

If you paid your buck for the Los Angeles Times, you read this lead headline:

"Romney Averts Disaster"

The New York paper hedged its bet with a front-page "News Analysis" by Jim Rutenberg under the headline: "Amid Victory, Echo of Doubt."

Said Rutenberg:. "After five caucuses, six primaries, 20 debates and $30 million in television commercials, Mitt Romney leaves here facing the same stubborn question: Can a onetime Northeastern governor with a history of ideological migration win the Republican presidential nomination in the era of the tea party, with all its demands of political purity and passion?"

Maybe. Romney won ugly, but he caught a break in Michigan, where he won by just 30,000 votes -- and will have to share the state's electoral votes with Santorum -- probably because he won by at least 50,000 votes in absentee mail voting. And many of those were cast, as Santorum said in his triumphant concession speech, because: "A month ago they didn't know who we were."

Something of the same thing was true in Arizona, where Romney won by more than 100,000 votes, almost a 2-to-1 margin; 60 percent of the total vote was by absentee mail. So the man from Michigan, Massachusetts and Utah probably had the thing won there before many people heard of the next-to-last man standing, the former Pennsylvania senator.

And when they did hear from Santorum, it was as a loser to Romney (with help from Ron Paul) in the last debate, the one in Mesa, Ariz. Since then, he has said that too many people were following the American Dream to college and that President Obama was "a snob" for encouraging them, that women should not be working so much outside the home, and that John F. Kennedy's great speech to Houston ministers in 1960 about the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up." Kennedy promised he would not take orders from the pope. Perhaps Santorum is saying he will.

Santorum, predictably, is blaming the press for some of his problems: "One of the things that happens in the media is they try to portray the caricature of somebody."

Well, he is something of a caricature. But with all of that new baggage -- and the fact that he lost his Senate seat by more than 18 percentage points the last time he ran -- Santorum was still able to run almost even in Romney's home state.

Now comes Super Tuesday, with 10 states in play -- that really means Ohio. If Santorum wins Ohio and picks up a couple of other states, and Gingrich (remember him?) runs well in Southern primaries that day, the whole idea of an invincible (in the Republican Party) candidate will look like a sagging balloon. Strange party. Strange year.

Except for his performance last week in debate, shredding Santorum's Senate record, Romney does not seem to be improving as a candidate. He says, without conviction, that his troubles this year and his wife's Cadillacs are not hurting him or the Republican Party; they are "preparing" him for a tough campaign against Obama. I don't think so.

The man is just a lousy candidate with four advantages: the first three are money, and the fourth is that his opponents have proved to be even worse.

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