The GOP primary race so far has resembled nothing so much as a reality TV show. And in the way that reality TV stars are famous for being famous, Mitt Romney increasingly looks to be inevitable because of his inevitability. With a celluloid-thin win in Iowa earlier this month followed up by a decisive win in New Hampshire last night, Romney is the clear front runner in the race, despite continued lukewarm feelings toward him from much of the Republican elite as well as the conservative activist base.
That's not to say that the base hasn't made its discomfort known. Party activists and leaders have strained and fumbled for a credible anti-Romney since last summer, but never found one with staying power. The hunt is still on. The Washington Post reports that some conservative activists are now engaged in a last minute scramble to find a viable alternative to Romney. Their repeated failures so far, however, do not bode well for any last-ditch efforts to find and promote a consensus alternative.
One by one, the parade of GOP not-Mitts up until now has fallen by the wayside—Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and now Santorum have all had their 15 minutes and then been yanked off stage. Huntsman, whose third place finish last night barely passes for a moment in the sun, can almost certainly expect similar treatment. Each of these candidates has been greeted with excitement, only to be pushed to the sidelines after revealing significant weaknesses. Early contenders—Bachmann, Perry, and Cain—simply didn't appear up to the task of running a competent campaign, much less a White House. More recent possible alternatives—Gingrich and Santorum—have proven themselves to be flaky big-government conservatives with unappealing personalities and ideas.
Each of the candidates has different problems, but the thread that unites them is that they've all offered some variant on relatively conventional Republicanism. And if you're going to nominate a conventional Republican, then why not nominate Romney, who (at least since he left office in Massachusetts) has offered nothing if not dutiful adherence to convention. At this point, practically his whole appeal is based on some abstract collective ideal of generic Republicanism—pro-business, anti-tax; pro-America, anti-Obama.
There's one candidate, of course, who I have yet to mention: Rep. Ron Paul. Unlike the numerous GOP flavors of the week, Paul has been building his support and his momentum slowly. After his solid second-place finish in New Hampshire last night, Paul has arguably emerged as the most effective anti-Romney candidate in the GOP field. And one thing you can say about Paul is that he is not offering anything that could be described as conventional Republicanism; his campaign is built on opposition to defense spending and overseas adventurism, a critique of the Federal Reserve, and a return to constitutionally limited government. Compare this to the shrugging acceptance with which Romney's vanilla campaign and laundry list of GOP priorities have been greeted; Paul, in contrast, has managed to generate tremendous, unusual enthusiasm. Indeed, he's the only candidate in the race who has been able to sustain and build such enthusiasm over time. Who knew? The most effective anti-Romney turns out to be someone who is genuinely not like Mitt Romney.