The Republican presidential race now moves from New Hampshire to South Carolina, but it's really taking place in an upside-down Lake Wobegon—where all the men are homely, all the women are weak and all the candidates are below average.
We are often told that modern campaigns generate rivers of pointless trivia and shameful misinformation. But this one has served ably to do something that is as valuable to voters as it is unwelcome to the Republican Party: put a merciless spotlight on the mammoth flaws of every aspirant.
There are people who yearn for the short political campaigns in parliamentary countries like Britain, where the process of choosing a national leader is over before Rick Perry can count to three.
But in those places, candidates are generally well-known and thoroughly vetted before they offer themselves for the nation's highest office. Here, random individuals are apt to follow the example of Joan of Arc, called to service by voices only they can hear.
As she discovered, though, an auspicious beginning doesn't assure a happy outcome. In a long, expensive, nonstop campaign like this one, first impressions mean nothing. What matters is enduring appeal. Or, at least, tolerability over time.
The wide-open nature of presidential politics makes the campaign as unpredictable as cow pie bingo. Candidates who appear formidable while watching from the sidelines turn out to be inept on the field. Candidates who seem laughably unlikely at the outset suddenly take flight on the wings of destiny—before eventually plunging back to earth.
That's the value of the endless debates and media scrutiny. They expose every liability a candidate labors to conceal, while demolishing every asset the candidate presumes to publicize.
Perry started out looking like a rugged cowboy but soon gave voters the impression he would try to milk a bull. Herman Cain unveiled a "9-9-9" plan that, it turned out, represented the number of women he has hit on. Michele Bachmann, who made headway on the assumption that Republicans wanted a little bit of crazy, offered more than they could take.
Newt Gingrich talked himself to the top of the Iowa polls and then talked himself back down. No one ever left a Gingrich encounter wanting to hear more.
Rick Santorum, offering himself as a clear conservative alternative to Romney, got a big "no thanks" from New Hampshire voters. Even in the Republican Party, he has demonstrated, you can be too anti-gay. Jon Huntsman found that you can also be too reasonable.
Ron Paul, meanwhile, has unearthed surprising evidence that many Republicans think the battle against big government should not stop at the water's edge. Unlike Barack Obama and George W. Bush, they are not eager to launch attacks on other countries or take on massive nation-building projects.
Paul sounds eerily like the Bush who ran in 2000—promising we would be "a humble nation." So he has no chance of getting the nomination of a party in thrall to endless war.
Mitt Romney remains the candidate for Republicans who are willing to settle, which is not most of them. His two chief credentials for high office are a career in private equity investment and one term as governor of Massachusetts, and he has been busy explaining away both.
He has had to downplay his signature achievement in government, a health insurance program that inspired the Obama administration plan so detested on the right. He has had to pretend that Bain Capital was in the business of creating jobs, as though making money were an inconsequential afterthought.
Romney's best bet for conservative credibility, oddly, is absorbing attacks from more conservative candidates. Gingrich and Perry, who regard Obama as a socialist for his attacks on the alleged excesses of capitalism, now attack Romney for profiting from the alleged excesses of capitalism.
Both invoke Ronald Reagan 10 times a minute, but it's impossible to imagine Reagan denouncing private equity firms as "vultures" with a "mentality of making money against all other considerations," as Perry did, or depicting Bain Capital as "rich guys looting companies," as Gingrich did.
Once their campaigns are over, these two have a bright future with Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, they may achieve the feat of making Romney look like a man of consistency and principle.
Unreal? Sure. But in this race, unreality is the new reality.