So the hollow man has finally firmed his fragile hold on the GOP nomination, in another of T.S. Eliot's phrases, "not with a bang, but with a whimper." In the Wisconsin primary, the whimper was Mitt Romney's margin — a derisory 4 percent for someone to whom Republicans should rally overwhelmingly since they know he will be their standard-bearer in November.

But as I've written before, Romney's will be a grudging nomination, requiring Herculean exertion and Midas-like spending to overcome a clutch of rivals who resemble the cast of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Wisconsin, like the rest of Romney's poll-lurching journey down the campaign trail, was a recurring revelation of his relative weakness and his unconvincing, untrusted presence among the Republican faithful. Nonetheless, in the party's 2012 sweepstakes, it's all over but the muted cheering; the sorting out of the predictable denouement of the primary process and the potential melodrama of the Tampa convention; and the rebooting of Romney himself. 

Romney looks like a papier-mâché candidate with a glass jaw and tin tongue.

Newt Gingrich, with his self-proclaimed high Reaganism reduced to a cross-country tour of four-star restaurants financed by $10 contributions from little old ladies, has morphed into a conservative messiah without disciples. He fancies himself a Churchill emerging from his wilderness years; the rest of us now inescapably conceive of him as a self-caricature entranced by his own looney delusions. As Al Gore might say, it's time for him to go. 

Where he may be determined to go is Tampa — to deliver himself of a speech that would be less a last hurrah than a last humbug. 

At 68, Newt we shall not see in the presidential arena again. Not so for Rick Santorum, if he has anything to say about it. His post-Wisconsin non-concession invoked Ronald Reagan's 1976 vow to go all the way to the convention against Gerald Ford. After having a moderate foisted on the party that year, Santorum exulted, the Gipper came back four years later as the triumphant conservative. That is plainly the part Santorum is auditioning for: He's still running today so he can run again in 2016. 

Rick is no Reagan — and his attempt at a parallel proves Karl Marx's observation that history repeats itself, the second time as "farce." Indeed the more telling analogy could be Barry Goldwater, who hadn't contested the primaries but mounted a brief candidacy at the 1960 convention, where his rousing withdrawal speech called for a true conservative — soon, if not now — rather than the tepid expediency of Richard Nixon. Goldwater didn't criticize Nixon by name, but the speech, easy to decode, was the opening summons of a march toward the extremist takeover of the GOP in 1964 — and a calamitous defeat in the fall. This could happen again for Santorum or someone else on the unequivocal far right in the wake of a Romney defeat; the backlash that would blame the outcome on the insufficient ideological fervor of Romney, a McCain in corporate clothing, invites just such a farcical sequel. 

To be fair, Goldwater's significance reached far beyond 1964. He deployed an actor named Reagan as his surrogate on national television; he was the progenitor of the party's modern shift to the right. In that sense, Santorum will never be more than a rider on the conservative storm who ultimately has the opposite effect. An utterly implausible president, his nomination four years from now would trigger a different Republican journey — back toward the middle —  after the true believers have had their chance and their grail of reaction has proved to be a god that failed. 

A calculating Mitt — and he is surely that — should let Rick and Newt address the convention during primetime — that is, primetime in Guam, where America's day begins. If Romney's campaign doesn't control the timing, or rein in the content, rhetorical self-indulgence and women-bashing, gay-trashing, and Latino-lashing excesses could inflict the first wound of Romney's general election campaign. That's what Pat Buchanan mortally did to the first George Bush with gusto and venom in 1992.

The nominee-apparent is already wounded enough.

Yes, in some ways, Mitt has been lucky. If Rick Perry hadn't been addled on pain pills for his back and had turned in a passable performance in the debates, he could have left Romney in the dust of the also-rans somewhere around Florida. And Mitt had the money to traduce his opponents and twist their records, while they had only proverbial pennies to fight back. 

But in the balance of political fortune, Romney also faced the unfortunate necessity of ceaselessly appeasing the right-wingers through a protracted season of unexpected struggle. For them, it's not been entirely convincing; for him, it's one of the few things that seems to come naturally. It's likely that he actually believes what he professes now rather than the diametrically opposed views he expressed in the past. In any event, he's weighed down with an almost unbearable load of fringe positions even while he fecklessly reveals himself as out of touch.

The latter problem was on display last week in Wisconsin as he grappled with his recurring dilemma — be primly stiff or perilously spontaneous. He fumbled again when he told a humorless joke about his father closing auto plants and laying off workers in Michigan so that, heh heh,  a Wisconsin plant could stay open. In a Romney war room everyone must have cringed. You could all but hear the groans as a candidate who had just prevailed in Illinois indulged his habitual tendency to snatch a gaffe from the jaws of victory. And not one gaffe, but three within a few days. He who would "end Planned Parenthood" blurted out that women don't care about health care. He soon added that he was in touch with women because his wife talks with them — is he afraid to? — and then "reports to him." Does she salute?

Romney is the winner as loser. As the primaries finally confirm his capture of the GOP — to many base voters a hostile takeover hardly soothed by his constant pandering — he's cratered his standing with women, independents, and the mainstream electorate. In the USA Today/Gallup poll of swing states, he has an 18-point gender chasm. With his favorable rating nationally in the mid-30s, he has gained the nomination by trapping himself in precisely the wrong position against Barack Obama. The president's strengths are the mirror images of Romney's liabilities — character vs. opportunism, consistency vs. flip-flops, fairness vs. unfairness, caring vs. an unknowing indifference. And perhaps most important of all, jobs and the economy: Romney's message that as a CEO he can fix things will increasingly falter and fail as the job numbers rise.

The about-to-be Republican nominee has just enlisted the former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie as his senior advisor — in this case, as his chief Etch A Sketcher. And Mitt has a lot of Etch A Sketching to do. In addition to his toxic positions on social issues and immigration, he's chained himself to the broken mast of Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare-privatizing budget. But given the doubts people already have about Romney, the nearly indelible impression that he will say or do anything, the danger is that each time he clarifies, trims, or backs away, he won't scrub his profile, but further smudge it. 

The sense that he's a business plan in search of conviction and connection could also constrain — to an unusual degree — his vice presidential choice. He may yearn for a pick that eases his deficit with Latino voters — where his recent support at 14 percent would make it all but impossible for him to get to the White House. Leave aside the possibility that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, doesn't quite do the trick with Latinos — and the prospect that the ethnicity of New Mexico's Gov. Susana Martinez or Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval may not trick Latino voters into voting against themselves. 

Romney would need to be excruciatingly careful in explaining such a choice. Far less than John McCain, who was viewed as a conviction politician, can he afford to replicate McCain's preposterous claim — about Sarah Palin — that he chose "the best qualified person." An already disbelieved candidate can't carry a claim like that without damaging himself. Romney may have to forgo the Latino VP option — or settle for a modest rationale that he's picked someone who can do the job. And whoever that is, he or she had better be ready to prove it.

Finally, the primaries suggest a high hurdle to further Etch A Sketching of Mitt. In the states that have seen him most, he's clearly behind Obama. As he eked out Wisconsin over Santorum, an NBC/Marist poll showed him with a 17-point deficit in the fall. In Michigan, the let-General-Motors-go-bankrupt nominee might as well give up. It's hard to credit the conventional assumption that Romney will naturally do better when the hard truth is that familiarity with him tends to breed disaffection.

On paper, Romney looked inevitable at the beginning — and in the end, he is. But now he also looks like a papier-mâché candidate with a glass jaw and tin tongue. The Obama campaign won't take anything for granted — and is already on the air reinforcing the narrative of choice: The president fights for you; Romney stands for the few. 

At the conclusion of a wacky contest for the nomination inside a party that has lost its head, it seems clearer every day that the real winner of the 2012 Republican primaries is — Barack Obama.