Last week, after yet another episode of bizarre behavior on the Republican campaign trial, one of my partners - political consultant John Hennelly - came into my office and asked, "Next, will all eight of these guys ride into the arena piled into a VW Beetle and pile out with big red noses?"
Over the many decades I have observed or participated in Presidential primary contests, I don't think we have ever been treated to such a clown show.
Recall that the show began with a boomlet for Donald Trump who pretended to run for President to promote his TV show. On December 27th the pre-Iowa debate circus will reach its apogee when Trump chairs the last Republican debate of the year.
And the show would not have been the same without former Godfather Pizza czar Herman Cain. Though Cain has now "suspended" his campaign, who can forget the painful video of his attempts to remember which war was the one in Libya, or his absurd "999" tax plan, or the graphic descriptions from the charges of sexual harassment against him? And who didn't wonder at his seeming surprise when a recent thirteen year-long affair somehow managed to find its way into the news when he decided to subject himself to the intense scrutiny of a candidate for President of the United States?
The New York Times reported that the announcement that his campaign had been "suspended" had a "circus-like" atmosphere - "complete with numerous postponements, barbecue, a blues band and supporters in colonial-era dress."
Of course, when the race began most observers thought that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann might take the prize for least-ready-to-lead the free world. After all, she was prone to off-the-wall statements, offered radical right wing solutions, and she and her husband owned a business that specialized in "fixing" gay people. But the Tea Party faithful's short infatuation with Bachmann came to a screeching halt the moment Rick Perry entered the race.
Perry launched his campaign at a "prayer rally," but it turned out he was better at being the "yell leader" at Texas A&M as an undergraduate than in explaining his positions in debates. His minutes-long attempt to remember the third Federal agency he would eliminate if elected President made everybody watching feel almost as uncomfortable as he appears to be exploring virtually any subject with more depth than a sound-bite. And his seemingly inebriated, giggling New Hampshire speech that ended in a near-swooning hug of a bottle of maple syrup was just downright weird.
Last week we were all reminded once again why Rick Perry has some distance to go convincing voters he is, shall we say, "in command of the facts" - when he indicated that he thought that the voting age in the United States was 21 and he didn't know the date of the General Election to which he is supposedly devoting his life.
It's no wonder that on Sunday, Congressman Barney Frank said that in his casting of the Republican campaign as the "Wizard of Oz," Rick Perry would be the Scarecrow - the one who desperately wanted a brain.
That's not Ron Paul's problem. Paul has to be regarded as a serious, knowledgeable legislator. His major limitation is that his well-articulated views are somewhere on the other side of the former planet Pluto when it comes to the American mainstream. Paul not only wants to abolish Medicare, like most of the rest of the Republican field. He also thinks both Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional. He twice introduced legislation to abolish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that protects workers on the job. He opposes the minimum wage, the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve.
To his credit, Paul doesn't try to sugarcoat or nuance these proposals. He overtly and articulately champions pure social Darwinism. Problem is that most Americans - including most Republicans -- don't. It sounds fine to many Republican primary voters for a candidate to talk about unfettered individual freedom - but when that translates into eliminating their Social Security check it's a different matter.
Then there is Rick Santorum, defeated Pennsylvania Senator, whose answer to just about any world problem is to ban abortion. So far, at least, Rick hasn't had a turn at the front of the GOP pack - but it's never too late.
And poor John Huntsman - the Rodney Dangerfield of the show, who just can't get no respect. Seemingly the most qualified, eloquent, knowledgeable and presentable candidate, Huntsman forgot one thing: there is no way for a moderate to be elected dog catcher by a Republican primary electorate that has cascaded to the right - far, far from the American mainstream.
Huntsman is simply the skunk at the Tea Party.
That leaves us with the two apparent "contenders." Newt Gingrich - the former House Speaker with a seemingly endless supply of far out "big ideas"-- and robot-Romney - whose campaign was, up until recently, based mainly on the "inevitability" of his nomination.
From the beginning of the Republican nominating show the story line has been dominated by one central fact - notwithstanding his reputed "inevitability" -- three fourths of the Republican primary electorate simply doesn't like Mitt Romney. They don't like him - and perhaps more important - they don't trust him.
Romney suffers from two overriding problems.
First, he has no core values beyond his own personal ambition. And that is the dictionary definition of what most Americans think of as a "typical politician."
If he were performing in a side-show at a carnival, the barker might yell out:
"Step right up, see the amazing Mitt Romney - he looks like one man, but he's really two candidates in one! Vote for Mitt and you get a pro-choice President and an anti-abortion President. You get a pro-health care reform President and an anti-health care reform President. You get a man who four years ago said he would 'fight for every job in the auto industry,' and two years later said that Detroit should be allowed to go bankrupt. Watch Mitt Romney perform amazing acts of political contortion to please any audience! Watch the man change colors to blend into his political environment the way a lizard changes color to make himself look like a leaf!"
Turns out that voters don't think they get added value from a candidate that is actually "two candidates in one." Republican voters, Independent voters, Democratic voters - all have one thing in common. They all want candidates with core values. That is an independent variable in politics. And that is what Mitt Romney isn't.
John Kerry has a decades-long history of demonstrating his core values, yet in 2004, Karl Rove managed to convince many swing voters that he did not. Think how much easier it will be for Democrats - and for that matter his Republican primary rivals - to convince voters that a guy like Mitt Romney has no core.
That's why in his version of the Wizard of Oz, Barney Frank casts Romney as the Tin Man - the one without a heart.
Romney's second big problem is that pretty much everyone thinks of him as the poster boy for the one percent. He's the guy who fired your sister - the cold, calculating numbers guy who clinically evaluates what is best for hisbottom line and bloodlessly sends you off a pink slip. No empathy, no human concern. Romney is the fellow at Bain Capital that dismantled companies - and sent some into bankruptcy - all to make him and his deal-making buddies a pile of money.
He's the guy who posed at the center of his Bain Capital crew with money coming out of their pockets, mouths, sleeves and ears.
You might think that Republican primary voters would think that those qualifications made Romney a capitalist hero. Trouble is, only a very limited number of Republican primary voters actually are the one percent that is the party's financial base. Many Tea Party voters have some very unfortunate positions on all sorts of subjects - but the polling shows they care about their jobs, their Social Security, their Medicare. As much as they dislike "big government", they don't like Wall Street deal makers, either.
The Romney campaign narrative portrays him as problem-solving, effective businessman. Average voters would always prefer to have a President that effectively deals with their problems all right - but they don't focus entirely on effectiveness. They want to know "effective for whom"?
The threshold question of politics is whether a candidate is "on my side."
Voters would much rather vote for a candidate who they believe is on their side but ineffective, than one who is very effective advocating against their interests.
In 1988, Mike Dukakis premised his entire campaign on his managerial skill and technocratic effectiveness. After the Democratic Convention he led George H. W. Bush by 17%. Then the Bush campaign savaged Dukakis with a series of advertisements that effectively argued that Dukakis was "not on their side" - that he didn't "share their values." Dukakis stuck to his "effectiveness" argument, refusing to take on Bush's values - the question of who is "on your side." Ultimately, Bush beat Dukakis nationwide by 7.7% and four to one in the electoral vote.
Romney's two fundamental problems are complicated by a third. Mitt has a hard time making an emotional connection with the voters. Ask Al Gore if this could be a political problem. And for Romney, the emotional connection issue is even more critical than it was for Gore because those traits tend to amplify people's views that he has no core values and is a poster boy for the uncaring one percent. Romney seems wooden, scripted - phony and aloof.
In last week's rare one-on-one interview with Fox News, Romney was brittle. He seemed offended that the interviewer would actually press him on the flip-flops in his record. He appeared to have a sense of entitlement, of aloof superiority that chafes at being questioned.
Romney is a caricature of a guy who was raised in a wealthy, privileged button-down environment.
These are the reasons that, no matter what happens in the rest of the Republican field, Romney never gets beyond about 25% of the primary vote in a poll. And that's why Newt Gingrich has supplanted Romney as the new "top banana" in the Republican road show.
Conservatives know Gingrich. He may have done some serious flip-flops of his own, but most Conservative voters start with the presumption that Gingrich has been fighting for one version or the other of right wing values his entire career -- and they like that. They also like the idea that Gingrich has always been an unapologetic Conservative, come what may, whereas Romney is a political chameleon that changes his spots to please whatever electorate he plans to court. Gingrich may sometimes veer out of control, but he is authentic - and quite a contrast to Romney's robot-like-scripted phoniness.
The 75% of Republican primary voters have been screen testing all of the remaining candidates for the role of "alternative to Romney" for months. Romney is hoping that they never find a clear, suitable alternative, and his quarter of the vote, coupled with his "inevitability" and the argument that he would have the best chance against Obama, will be enough to power him to the nomination.
But it increasingly looks like that strategy is in serious trouble.
Voters and political operatives have begun to realize that his lack of core values and position as "poster boy" for the one percent will not just hurt him in the primaries- they will be toxic in the General Election as well. In fact recent polls have begun to show that it is now Gingrich that Republican primary voters think will have the best chance against Obama.
And as for "inevitability"? In Iowa, Romney is now third in the latest polls behind Gingrich and Ron Paul. If Gingrich wins Iowa he will consolidate his position as the "anti-Romney," do well in New Hampshire - rout Romney in South Carolina and likely win Florida. After that you have to bet the "Big-Mo" will be with Gingrich.
But who knows? The clowns in circuses surprise us all the time with pratfalls and other bizarre acts. Like any good circus, the battle for the Republican nomination may leave us in suspense for some time to come.