It was a last minute save. Mitt Romney managed to finish a couple of percentage points ahead of the latest non-Romney -- Rick Santorum -- in his native state's Republican primary Tuesday. In addition to carrying Michigan in a squeaker, he scored a decisive win in Arizona. After many a setback and comeback, those in charge of reviving his campaign after every relapse must have felt like the scientists in those old Frankenstein movies when their work begins to breathe: "It's alive! It's alive!"
It was time for his handlers to exult. For a night. Because now Ohio and the other states in play next (Super) Tuesday become their man's next big test. The GOP's once and future frontrunner has dodged still another bullet, for if he had failed to carry his home state, it might have been the beginning of the end of his presidential campaign. And for his party's hopes of emerging from this nigh-endless primary season with a clear leader. Instead, he's the frontrunner again. Or maybe just the last man standing.
For the moment, the Republicans have paused in their death march. We say paused, not ended, because Super Tuesday could mark either the crystallization or further dissolution of the Republican presidential field this year. The choice facing Republicans becomes ever clearer: Mitt Romney or more indecision.
The GOP's best chance of achieving unity and then victory in the fall now lies in the early resolution of this week-to-week fight for the nomination. It's been kind of fun while it lasted, but there can be much too much of a good thing.
There's still something good to be said about a good old knock-down drag-out for a party's presidential nomination. (Just ask Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.) If it's Mitt Romney who emerges from all this dust -- and mud -- as the Republican nominee, nobody can say he hasn't been vetted. Also scarred and patched and beaten a time or three. By the time the campaign that counts begins, anything Barack Obama throws at him might come as anticlimax after what his fellow Republicans have done to him.
Mr. Romney's intraparty rivals will have done him and the country a favor if he turns out to be the nominee. Anybody serious about becoming president of the United States ought to be tested up, down and sideways, fair and foul. The pressures of a presidential campaign, severe as they are, may be as nothing compared to sitting at that massive desk made of an old ship's timbers in the Oval Office. (The timbers come from an old British sailing ship, the well-named HMS Resolute, courtesy of dear Queen Victoria, who knew what it was to be head of state -- and resolute.)
This week, Mr. Romney managed to overcome not just the current non-Romney but something far more formidable: the Republican Party's death wish, which is almost traditional by now. It goes back at least to Robert A. Taft in 1952, and has been represented in more recent years by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Pat Buchanan in 1992.
Democrats may have their own tradition of ideological diehards -- the Henry Wallace, George McGovern wing of the party -- but the breed seems to have lessened in recent years. Or at least had their energy drained away in futile third-party efforts like Ralph Nader's that assure a Republican victory. But there is still a wing of Republicanism that would much prefer to recite its favorite shibboleths than win a mere presidential election. Ideologues tend to embrace defeat as proof of their authenticity.
Whittaker Chambers famously compared such types to an old man in a dark shop who never sells anything but spends his time "fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
In this year's GOP primaries, Ron Paul is the designated Old Man in a Dark Shop, but the role keeps getting re-assigned as the familiar scenario is played out with a different cast every four years or so. This year others keep trying out for the part -- Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum. ... Mitt Romney's great advantage is that he's the solid, well-organized businessman in the race. His great disadvantage is that he's the solid, well-organized businessman in the race.
Mitt Romney's candidacy raises a by-now familiar question for Republicans: Can a candidate without charisma but only experience, perseverance, a working knowledge of the issues and other dull-as-duty virtues compete with the ideological and rhetorical dazzle of rivals who appeal to the party's true believers? Super Tuesday may tell us. Or it may just prolong the agony.
It's a familiar danger for a party -- or a country -- based on ideas: In rash hands, ideas become only ideology. And the lunatic fringe becomes the warp-and-woof of a party. Unless tempered by experience, moderated by tradition, tested in the real world, the best of ideas may become the worst of ideologies.
Republicans always seem to be waiting for another Reagan, a leader who can combine the spellbinding appeal of an actor who thrills the crowd with the practical political skills acquired over a long career of practical leadership. Admirers of The Gipper may forget that he was not just a star but also a union leader, governor and president who knew how to compromise when he needed to.
But the Reagans of political life, like the FDRs, are rare. This year, Republicans might as well wait for Godot, the character who never arrives in a play that never goes anywhere. Such may or may not be the stuff of art, but it's not the stuff of politics, the art of the possible. Certainly not this year, a year in which Americans have to choose between the candidates we've got, not the mythic figures their campaigns depict.