The Tea Partiers think they want a convention fight. The fantasists say they want a Daniels-ex-machina. But the realists in the Republican Party’s elite have settled into the grim reality: One of the three flawed men battling for their party’s nomination will win it, but he may be so badly damaged that it doesn’t matter.
In 2008, John McCain could find consolation in the drubbing Hillary Clinton gave Barack Obama on his long grim slog through Pennsylvania to the ultimate nomination. Not this year: Obama is coasting uncontested to a coronation at the Democratic National Convention, while Republicans are growing increasingly worried by the prospect of a brawl in Tampa.
“Before we embarked on this journey and this primary we had the president where we wanted him,” American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas told BuzzFeed. “Nothing that has happened warrants these good polling numbers. The only change is our own primary and the fallout from that. The president is the beneficiary of that.”
Obama’s approval rating reached 50 percent in several recent surveys — the highest since last summer — and his lead in head-to-head matchups with Republicans has grown in recent weeks.
Some Republicans have already begun to discuss the mechanics of a contested convention, which would be a riveting media circus in the age of Twitter. It’s not a prospect the party’s leaders relish, or one its grassroots would actually enjoy.
“Would Tea Partiers stand for a bunch of party insiders picking the nominee at the convention — especially if they were to pick someone moderate enough to win the general election — I really don’t think so,” said one Republican state chairman. “And what will independents think when they watch this chaos play out on TV?”
“The possibility of winning on a late ballot and leaving that convention with the momentum necessary to compete to November is a difficult challenge. I am hoping that will not be the case. We will sure make it much tougher for ourselves if we let that happen,” said Cardenas. “We’ll be running out of real estate on the time to mount a general election.”
Cardenas said that if neither Romney nor Santorum make a big delegate grab by Super Tuesday that there would be “an outcry” of Republicans looking for a way to end the race by brokering some sort of deal. “Insiders are worried about our chances in November, but that hasn’t hit the retail level full force — yet.”
And so the party’s elite — an unusual number of whom remain on the sidelines — feel trapped. “It really is frustrating,” said Florida Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who backed former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman until he dropped out last month. “Republicans are willing, ready and itching to give Obama the fight of his life, but we can't seem to find the right general to lead us into battle.”
“The truth is there are a lot of unsatisfied people right now who think Paul is in the fringes of sanity, Santorum is too far right, Gingrich is too deep into Gingrich and Romney is just too squishy and gaffe-prone. Either, one of those guys gets his act together quickly, or we'll all be running out of patience and looking for a solution, as creative or imperfect as it may be,” she said.
And few believe the solution will include a so-called “dark horse” late entrant into the race to save the day.
“I don’t think there is anyone short of Jesus Christ who could unite the Republican Party right now,” said South Carolina Republican strategist and former Huntsman adviser Joel Sawyer.
Advisers to both Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush confirmed that neither is even considering entering the race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, still floated as a potential late entrant despite ruling out a run multiple times in 2011, has been a vocal supporter of Mitt Romney.
“Many people see Jeb Bush as the perfect candidate. Unfortunately, Jeb doesn't see it himself,” said Navarro, a Bush adviser, a sentiment echoed by those close to Daniels.
In the meantime, the Republican leaders are left vainly trying to separate the parties, whose mutual dislike seems to deepen daily.
“Guys – you’re getting too petty,” urged Cardenas, saying he is far from the only conservative leader worried about the tenor of the primary. “Your negative strategy is too personal. You’ve got to start talking about the big issues. Now we’re in a downward spiral of attacks — and that spiral has to stop."