We are often told that modern campaigns generate rivers of pointless trivia and shameful misinformation. But this one has served ably to do something that is as valuable to voters as it is unwelcome to the Republican Party: put a merciless spotlight on the mammoth flaws of every aspirant.
There are people who yearn for the short political campaigns in parliamentary countries like Britain, where the process of choosing a national leader is over before Rick Perry can count to three.
But in those places, candidates are generally well-known and thoroughly vetted before they offer themselves for the nation's highest office. Here, random individuals are apt to follow the example of Joan of Arc, called to service by voices only they can hear.
As she discovered, though, an auspicious beginning doesn't assure a happy outcome. In a long, expensive, nonstop campaign like this one, first impressions mean nothing. What matters is enduring appeal. Or, at least, tolerability over time.
The wide-open nature of presidential politics makes the campaign as unpredictable as cow pie bingo. Candidates who appear formidable while watching from the sidelines turn out to be inept on the field. Candidates who seem laughably unlikely at the outset suddenly take flight on the wings of destiny -- before eventually plunging back to earth.
That's the value of the endless debates and media scrutiny. They expose every liability a candidate labors to conceal, while demolishing every asset the candidate presumes to publicize.
Perry started out looking like a rugged cowboy but soon gave voters the impression he would try to milk a bull. Herman Cain unveiled a "9-9-9" plan that, it turned out, represented the number of women he has hit on. Michele Bachmann, who made headway on the assumption that Republicans wanted a little bit of crazy, offered more than they could take.
Newt Gingrich talked himself to the top of the Iowa polls and then talked himself back down. No one ever left a Gingrich encounter wanting to hear more.
Rick Santorum, offering himself as a clear conservative alternative to Romney, got a big "no thanks" from New Hampshire voters. Even in the Republican Party, he has demonstrated, you can be too anti-gay. Jon Huntsman found that you can also be too reasonable.
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