The Republican primary, which looked like it was in danger of stabilizing last week, has dealt us a fresh surprise with Rick Santorum’s victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on Tuesday. This primary season has resisted predictability all along, with early strong showings from Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, all of whom are almost certainly crazy. But the fact that the field is still so uncertain could have more to do with lack of inspiration than anything else.
All four remaining candidates – Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul – face serious issues that have made primary voters uncertain of their ability to face Barack Obama in November.
Ron Paul is in the somewhat unusual position of having been in public life for more than three decades and having almost never contradicted himself. He looks like he could be a grandpa. He wears orthopedic shoes on national television. It’s hard to imagine having a beer with him, but maybe a glass of warm milk. Look past his adorably turtle-like appearance and realize that he wants to abolish the federal reserve, end birthright citizenship, and might be a racist. Paul looks less like a grandpa in a suit and more like someone who should never be allowed within fifty feet of the Oval Office.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, both of whom believe that they are the front-runner, have perhaps the opposite problem. Romney has often struggled to convince voters that he experiences human emotion, while Newt Gingrich made the unfortunate mistake of cheating on his wife while she was being treated for cancer, and then letting people find out about it. Their policies are largely in line with the Republican base, but neither has been able to create a consensus behind his candidacy despite huge campaign war chests and significant establishment support (for Romney, anyway).
Rick Santorum has gained the attention of a significant portion of primary voters, as evidenced by his victories in Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri (although, his victory in Missouri was non-binding and did not award any delegates). His sweater-vest-wearing antics lend him a relatable quality that Romney (who makes $10,000 bets) and Newt (who racked up $500,000 in debt at Tiffany’s) lack. But as soon as Santorum opens his mouth, it becomes clear that he is a single-issue candidate. And his single issue is making sure that Americans everywhere are obliged to adhere to his morals, whether they like it or not.
With such a lackluster field, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to clinch the nomination quickly. As it stands, Romney is closest to that goal with 94 of the 1114 delegates needed to secure the nomination, but his lead is far from decisive.
Far from inspiring crowds of thousands with the mere power of their words like Obama, the most serious problem for Romney and Newt is that it is unclear why they are even running. Santorum and Paul both have strong convictions (however misguided) that are the driving forces behind their campaigns. Romney and Newt both have a lot of money and really want to win. But there is nothing less inspiring than someone who wants to lead the free world just for the sheer pleasure of being able to say he’s done it, and if Obama is able to rally even a fraction of the principled hope he inspired in 2008, the eventual Republican nominee will struggle to create the same fervor with a “lesser of two evils” approach.