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The GOP's desperate hunt for anyone but Mitt Romney
Herman Cain unravels. Rick Perry stumbles. And Republicans keep praying that someone will rescue them from the flip-flopping Romney
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
I

wish we could set aside Herman Cain, his economically insane 9-9-9 plan, and his pathetically inane responses to charges of sexual harassment — responses which have lurched from indignation and amnesia to contradiction and continued cover up. 

The Cain super-PAC weighed in this week with a fundraising letter headlined: "Don't let the left 'lynch' another black conservative." A comparison to Clarence Thomas isn't particularly helpful here — except with very hardcore Cain supporters who may stick with him anyway. And their reaction makes sense: If you believe climate change is a myth, then you can believe Cain is qualified to be president. 

Ignoring Cain is appealing because, in plain, hard truth, there's simply no possibility that he will ever become commander-in-chief. He just said China is "a potential military threat" because "they're trying to develop nuclear capability." China did that — half a century ago. Not just on economics or national security, but on issues generally — for example, he's proposed "a moat" filled with "alligators" on the Mexican border — Cain is a profile in ignorance. 

Romney's slouching his way toward the nomination — and a disgruntled party will finally surrender to him unless a new Perry emerges who transcends bromides and buffoonery on the stump and befuddlement in the debates.

Maybe tea is a hallucinogen; maybe the GOP is demented — and it will nominate him anyway. If that happened, it's certain that President Obama would win by even more then he did in 2008. 

But there's also another explanation for the rise of Cain — and that's why I have to write about him. He's the latest in a procession of preposterous Republican candidates who have soared across the party's firmament — but in the cases of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, already crashed out of the race or collapsed into single digits. Along with the serial sideshows of Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Haley Barbour, which closed before opening, this melodrama (and it often manifests itself as farce), is a verdict on the once and probably future frontrunner. The GOP's primary voters have been relentlessly looking for Mr. Un-Romney. 

The establishment may have settled on Mitt Romney, however grudgingly; but even in its inner precincts there are holdouts. George Will, one of the most thoughtful of conservative columnists, calls Romney "the pretzel candidate...a recidivist reviser of principles who is... becoming less electable." Will's right to be on guard — and so are the recalcitrant Republicans who so far have refused to fall in line. That's why Romney can't cross the 25 percent benchmark in primary polls. 

Republican nominee Mitt Romney is still the likely outcome, but the question nags: Who is this guy? And it seems that question won't go away — not only in the contest for the nomination, but in a general election in which the Obama campaign will hold Romney's flip-flops to the fire. 

If Cain fades as he should, the near-term impact — and this is nearly incredible — could be to secure a second audition for Perry. He flubbed the first one, but he's now the only alternative with the money and credentials to rally the far-out majority who will dominate the primaries and caucuses. To them, with one exception, Perry's right on the issues — far right — which is exactly what they want and what they doubt about Romney. The Perry camp obviously understands — and hopes for — just such an opening. Indeed, it was a pollster for the Perry super-PAC — who previously worked with Cain at the National Restaurant Association — who offered the latest eye-witness claim that Cain was a sexual harasser.

It may require a suspension of disbelief to envision a Perry renaissance, but who ever would have foreseen the recent Cain surge? However, there are pre-conditions to a do-over for the well-coiffed Texas governor. First, can he overcome his early, now renounced warfare on Social Security and his first impression as a bumbling, stumbling, incoherent debater? Or was his first debut so indelible that a passable performance in the coming debates — assuming he's capable of that — won't be enough to bring him back? Second, will he find his groove as a candidate rather than a third-rate clown? That's exactly what he was in a town hall speech last week in New Hampshire which immediately went viral — and which led commentators to wonder if he was off his meds or on the sauce.

Perry speaks and stars in his 30-second television ad. It's crisp and right on target for the right-wing. It's a shame that Perry's had to campaign in person. 

If he can up his game, he will also have to explain away his one-time, one-off act of compassion and common sense on immigration. It would be cynical, but not difficult if he could get the words out: "I signed the law giving in-state college tuition to the children of illegals, but the problem is much worse now than it was then. I wouldn't sign it again — and I oppose any other such laws."  

Something like that limited flip-flop might work for Republicans desperate for something other then the limitless flip-flopping of Romney. Perry is the only fallback. Ron Paul is a cult, entirely out of step with Republicans on foreign policy. (John McCain might have to endorse Obama.) And I won't write here about Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, or Jon Huntsman, who soon enough will all be writing withdrawal speeches. 

Romney's slouching his way toward the nomination — and a disgruntled party will finally surrender to him unless a new Perry emerges who transcends bromides and buffoonery on the stump and befuddlement in the debates. 

For Romney, the pursuit of the presidency is a business plan to be constantly changed to fit customer preferences, discarding core convictions and fervently professing their opposite in a marketplace not of ideas, but of opportunism. As Chris Matthews has suggested, Romney is like the character in the movie Klute who's eagerly ready for whatever — and who beseechingly says: "What kind of party did you have in mind?" 

That's Romney, and that's why it's not over — yet. The Republican Party stubbornly doesn't want a candidate who, in effect, day after day, on issue after issue, personifies another line from Klute: "I will do anything you ask." And the 75 percent who resist Romney certainly don't want a nominee who reminds them of a Jane Fonda movie.  

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