Despite headlines about last Tuesday's debate such as the Las Vegas Review-Journal calling it a "slugfest that tested candidates' mettle," despite hearing a new tax plan from Rick Perry, and a "9-0-9" modification of Herman Cain's signature policy for certain low-wage workers, despite Rick Santorum saying that Herman Cain's position on abortion is like that of John Kerry and Barack Obama, the past week seems to have changed less about the situation in the Republican field than any week so far during this campaign season.
Amidst all the spinning, all the scurrilous charges, all the hyperbole and cognitive dissonance, nobody's mind seems to be changing, at least if betting odds are any representation.
Since the beginning of last week (prior to the debate) betting odds on Republican candidates have barely moved:
• Mitt Romney is trading around 66.5 percent to be the nominee, the same price at which he began last week.
• Rick Perry likewise remains at the 14 percent probability he had a week ago, hardly the move he might have hoped for following the only time he has been able to ruffle Romney's coiffeur.
• Herman Cain, despite encouraging poll numbers in Iowa and elsewhere, is trading around 7.6 percent, essentially unchanged with the beginning of last week after a brief spike up to about 9 percent.
• Newt Gingrich's "resurrection" has catapulted him from 2.5 percent a week ago to 3 percent now, actually the biggest move, both in absolute and relative terms, of any candidate but still hardly a ripple on the political ocean.
• Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum are each within about 0.1 percent of where they started the week, at 2.5 percent, 1.2 percent, and 0.5 percent respectively. Santorum's odds are only 0.1 percent away from those of Mike Huckabee (who isn't running) and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (who nobody knows is running); one has to wonder how much longer Santorum will or should be included in these debates.
• Perhaps the smartest move was by Jon "Who?" Huntsman whose betting odds at about 2.6 percent remain, like the others, right where they were a week ago. But he accomplished that feat without having to spend money on a flight and hotel room (not to mention the other pleasures of Las Vegas).
It's not as if we learned nothing in the past week, whether about Rick Perry's petulance and flat tax plan-coming-soon, Mitt Romney's ever-present political calculations, Herman Cain's libertarian leanings, Rick Santorum's sanctimoniousness, or Newt Gingrich's consistently being the adult in the room.
And it's not as if the media hasn't tried spinning the last week's news every possible way. Yet for the first time since the GOP field has been in its complete form, few minds were changed by any of it, including the debate, if betting odds are to be believed.
Do you feel after half a dozen debates more than a year before the general election, like a patient of Dr. D. P. Gumby, complaining "My brain hurts!"?
Or perhaps, are Republicans beginning to wonder whether many of the debates, especially those moderated by liberals such as CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, are less likely to inform us than to position Republicans in a circular firing squad for the primary benefit of President Obama's re-election chances?
My Australian-born but now American citizen wife -- who's quite the Newt Gingrich fan based on watching the Republican debates -- theorizes that the Occupy Wall Street shenanigans have distracted the nation from thinking about Republican candidates. She is, as always, on to something, and it will be interesting to see if the candidates take on the unsanitary leftist Occu-Pie-ers at the next debate. But I think there's more to our slight candidate numbness than distraction by latter day hippies egged on by union goons.
On the one hand, we are beginning to feel as if we know these candidates, that we are unlikely to learn much more from further debates other than perhaps who is the best debater -- itself not an insignificant point for someone who will have to debate Barack Obama. (While our president will not be at his rhetorical best unless teleprompter contact lenses are invented for him, with Messrs. Axelrod and Plouffe furiously typing away giving him talking points during a debate, the idea of Rick Perry going up against Barack Obama seems like my local junior high school going up against the Big Ten champions.)
On the other hand, the most likely way to learn more about the candidates is through debates -- with fourteen more currently scheduled between November and March. We'll have to sift through the predictable and the pablum to find the nuggets of importance, the small pieces of information that will help us decide such things as whether we want Romney or a non-Romney, and, if the latter, who is the best of that more principled bunch.
We'll have to decide whether there is a big difference between the candidate we actually like best and the candidate we think most likely to beat Barack Obama -- and then to weigh those things on our intellectual scales while hoping above all that those two traits converge in someone.
Although it remains theoretically early in the nominating process, the insane move by Florida Republicans to move up that state's GOP primary election date -- followed by the utterly predictable, almost laughable reactions by the traditionally early states -- means that we may be as little as two months, and not more than three months, from ballots being cast.
As that fact crystallizes in GOP voters' minds, we will soon be entering a different phase of the contest -- or maybe, based on the stickiness of betting odds, we already have.
Romney voters are staying with their man, but despite his nearly 67 percent betting odds, he can't get above 25 percent in national polls. "Real" conservatives and libertarians are looking for the anti-Romney to support, but the rise and fall of Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and in his own non-candidate way Chris Christie, has the principle-seeking part of the anti-Obama coalition feeling like they've been on an unpleasant roller coaster ride.
Mitt Romney has only made one unforced error during this campaign (saying that he couldn't have illegal aliens mowing his lawn because "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake"). He's unlikely to make another such error. His betting odds reflect a sense of inevitability about his receiving the nomination, but I think 67 percent is too high.
Republicans are tired and resentful of being given the candidate most able to claim it's his turn -- the mentality that gave us Bob Dole and John McCain, fine men both but terrible candidates. Many of us are starved for a combination of principle and personality such as we haven't seen in a president since Ronald Reagan.
But we're even more tired and resentful of Obamacare, Eric Holder, Lisa Jackson, and persistent 9 percent unemployment. Thus Romney's perceived "electability" becomes a much bigger positive for him than it might in another time.
And if those two paragraphs make me sound uncertain, even confused, I plead No Contest.
I'm certain I'm not alone. And although I have avoided the roller coaster myself (my favorite candidate, Mitch Daniels, having had his presidential aspirations quashed by his wife), I had grown weary of the violence and rapidity of shifting Republican opinions about the candidates much as some viewers of the Blair Witch Project had to stop watching the film for fear of re-tasting lunch.
If there's a message in the sudden immobility of Republican betting odds, it may be that the GOP base is weary too, that we're done being jerked this way and that by every new policy proposal or snide comment or liberal debate moderator ambush. It may be that Occupy Wall Street is showing us that this election is even more important than we already understood -- not that anyone I know thought this was less than the most critical election in our lifetimes -- and therefore not a time to be cheering for a candidate with little more information (likely less information) than you'd have in cheering for your favorite sports team. It's time to sit back and watch, confident that a decision-forcing piece of information will come our way one day soon -- or that it won't -- and that in either case it's time to take a deep breath.
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