So many other issues deserve to be written about, but the Republican presidential battle, like heroin for a junkie, compels the attention of political animals everywhere. Herewith, then, the column of a political junkie, trying hard for objective analysis while perhaps succumbing, as is all too human, to the unknowing substitution of wish fulfillment for analytical wisdom.
On the side of analytical ability, there is a strong record to which to point. Be that as it may, when the analysis does track one's personal preferences, as the following one (more or less) does, a bit of a caveat emptor warning is appropriate.
Okay, enough with the disclaimers. Here's the prediction, seemingly wild but actually serious: When the dust settles (and when the clichés run out), the final two Republican contenders with a chance for the nomination will be Mitt Romney and… not Newt Gingrich, but either Rick Santorum or an as-yet-undeclared Candidate X named Jindal or Ryan or, Lord forbid, Jeb "it's my birthright" Bush.
First, why not Gingrich? Because he's already dropping fast in Iowa and dropping fast in hypothetical match-ups against Obama, and Republican voters are desperate for a candidate who can evict today's Oval Office Occupier. Before much longer, too many people will have realized that Gingrich is, in style, discipline, and ethics, the Bill Clinton of the Right, without the rape but with only half the charm and twice the abrasiveness. He exhibits the extreme egomania of a new Napoleon -- and, for that matter, looks as if he has eaten too many Napoleon puff pastries to have the stamina for the marathon that is the modern presidential campaign.
Okay, then why not a resurgence by Rick Perry, who by most accounts is a good man? Because, while fall debates rarely are strongly decisive in presidential campaigns, Republican voters certainly don't want to risk having an awful debate performance cause the loss of a close election. Because Perry bombed or underwhelmed in five consecutive debates, Republican voters just won't be able to bring themselves to trust that he'll be a winning standard-bearer. (Hence National Review's dismissal of Perry in the course of their "Not Gingrich" editorial on Wednesday.) A candidate who bombed upon entry even with the advantages of $17 million is not somebody in whom the primary electorate will have sufficient confidence.
Michele Bachmann has much to recommend her as an admirable figure, but the impression is indelible that she is still too green for the White House. Ron Paul will do well in Iowa, but his "blame America for 9/11" shtick will never fly long enough to make him a serious contender. And Jon Huntsman is annoyingly supercilious and unctuous and has far too weirdly gone out of his way to insult too many sub-groups of conservatives.
All of which leaves, among those currently in the race, only Rick Santorum. Now, clearly, Santorum has yet to "project" the charismatic image of a potential winner, and has yet to overcome the stigma of his large loss in his 2006 Senate re-election campaign. On the other hand, he is the only candidate in the whole race who has yet to make a serious gaffe. He is the only candidate other than Gingrich whose every debate performance has been at least solid and substantive. He is the only candidate without any major downside for large numbers of conservatives. He is the only candidate who, if he rises, won't be subject to surprises that make him collapse like a soufflé upon further inspection. He has, bar none, the strongest grassroots organization in Iowa, along with surprisingly decent bones on which to put real campaign flesh in New Hampshire and especially South Carolina if he does catch some fire in Iowa. He has worked harder, almost certainly, than any of the other candidates (although Bachmann's campaign work ethic might be equally as strong). He clearly has established more personal connections in Iowa than any of the others, testing whether old-fashioned, one-by-one voter contacts can still pay dividends in the modern political world.
Aside from Gingrich, Santorum has the longest record of actual achievement within government. His legislative record is remarkably substantive, and his rise to the third-ranking position in the Senate GOP hierarchy completely belies the establishment-media portrayal of him as a right-wing gadfly. His foreign/defense-policy knowledge is deeper than anybody's but Huntsman's, and his foreign/defense-policy views are far more acceptable to a wide range of conservatives than are Huntsman's. His biggest economic proposal may not have the most obvious sex appeal, but it would be the strongest and -- a key consideration -- the most politically achievable job producer of any of them.
Finally, Santorum has a history (in four elections out of five) of peaking at exactly the right time and defying the political odds. If candidate quality, like cream, eventually rises to the stop and remains there, Santorum is the only conservative candidate who has real, potential staying power atop the field. He is an extremely able retail politician, one who should never be underestimated.
THAT SAID, serious talk among serious people continues to involve the possibility of drafting a new entrant into the race. The nomination calendar this year makes this more doable than in any year since 1976. Paul Ryan has twice ruled it out, but he clearly is annoyed by Gingrich and might be motivated to enter if Gingrich seems a serious threat to win. Bobby Jindal has endorsed Perry, but if Perry gave up he is in perfect position to pick up the conservative banner. Reaganite leaders have raved over his book Leadership and Crisis, which easily could serve as a blueprint, or even campaign platform, for a national conservative resurgence. Finally, somebody is making robo-calls in New Hampshire that suggest a Jeb Bush candidacy, but smart people should recognize that 2012 is far too soon for voters to want to return to the Bush leagues. (Indeed, the very threat of an entrance by Bush may catalyze key players to hustle into drafting Ryan or Jindal, in order to fill what amounts to the only remaining spot in the field before Bush can consider it.)
What seems clear, though, is that Romney has a floor of about 20 percent of the Republican electorate, below which he will not fall, which makes him a shoo-in to be one of the final two contenders. Equally as clear, enough Republican voters yearn so strongly for a serious, conservative alternative to Romney that there will emerge a non-Romney candidate from the right who actually has staying power. For all the reasons above, that alternative will not remain Gingrich, and it won't be Bachmann or Perry either. Santorum's chance is at hand, as is the chance for the most successful presidential draft movement (for Ryan or Jindal) in American history.