A few questions remain to be answered. Enter Mitch Daniels? Exit Sarah Palin?
But already two of the best-known candidates seem bent on ruling themselves out of contention.
One is Newt Gingrich. He's being denounced for his comments on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare plan by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Bill Bennett, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Charles Krauthammer on Fox News.
Ryan's Medicare plan was part of the budget resolution that all Republicans but four voted for in the House. It is for all practical purposes the platform of the Republican Party. And Gingrich seemed to trash it.
He did so in response to a tendentious question from "Meet the Press's" David Gregory, who asked whether Republicans "ought to buck the public opposition" and "really move forward to completely change Medicare."
The smart response would have been to challenge the premises of Gregory's question. The Ryan plan is not necessarily unpopular -- public sentiment depends heavily on how poll questions are worded. And the plan wouldn't completely change Medicare. The current system would remain in effect for everyone now 55 and over.
But Gingrich accepted Gregory's premises. "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," Gingrich responded. "I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate."
So a former Republican speaker of the House who wants to become a Republican president has just given Democrats a warrant to label a major Republican proposal "right-wing social engineering" and "radical change from the right."
It's not hard to see why Russell Fuhrman, an Iowa Republican who happened to run into Gingrich in Dubuque, said: "You're an embarrassment to our party. Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?"
From his own personal experience, Gingrich should have known what is happening here. The party's congressional wing, with its majority in the House, has taken the initiative in setting party policy -- as it did when Gingrich was speaker in 1995 and 1996.
Republican presidential contenders didn't disparage Gingrich's ideas in anything like the way Gingrich disparaged Ryan's. Gingrich sees himself, accurately, as a generator of new ideas. But the party he seeks to lead is already committed to ideas that are apparently contrary to his.
If Gingrich has put himself out of line with Republican policy more or less purposefully, Mitt Romney had no way of knowing that he would be aligned with President Obama when he formulated his Massachusetts health care plan back in 2006.
Congressional Republicans have almost unanimously supported repeal of the Obamacare bill jammed through Congress in March 2010 with a mandate, modeled on the one in Massachusetts, requiring everyone to buy health insurance. Twenty-seven state attorneys general or governors, almost all Republicans, are bringing lawsuits arguing that the Obamacare mandate violates the Constitution.
Romney delivered a health care speech last week in Michigan defending his Massachusetts plan and insisting that a state mandate is a different kind of duck from a federal mandate. But the response of the large mass of Republicans seems something like the old New Yorker cartoon in which the little girl confronted with a green vegetable says, "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it."
Some Romney fans are saying he has recovered by raising $10.25 million in a single day this week. It's an impressive fundraising feat.
But what is money for in a presidential nomination race? It can help build state organizations, it can introduce an unknown candidate to voters, and it can present arguments for a candidate or against his opponents.
Some of those things, however, can be done much more cheaply these days through new media. And it doesn't seem likely that even millions of dollars of ads can make Republican primary voters and caucus-goers love the Massachusetts mandate.
Romney is running as a technocrat, someone who can analyze data and get results through good management. But Republicans this year are looking not for a technocrat but for someone to reverse the Obama Democrats' vast increase in the size and scope of government.
Romney, too, seems out of line with the party he seeks to lead.
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