Is this it? That's the question that hangs over the Republican presidential field, and the answer is, "Yes, this is it -- no shining conservative on a white horse, no new Ronald Reagan, is arriving to re-make this race."
Newt Gingrich is not getting in, and apparently had no serious intention of getting in. Fred Thompson is in and has proved to be another flawed candidate in a field full of them. Someone has to win this race, but it's easier to find reasons why each candidate will lose rather than prevail.
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are doing best in the early state and national polls respectively. The former Massachusetts governor and New York City mayor have been engaged in fierce arguments over the conservative purity of their records on immigration and fiscal issues in which the winner can only be "none of the above." Past purity is the hallmark of neither man, both of whom were elected as moderate-to-liberal Republicans in liberal areas that would abide no other kind.
Romney and Giuliani now rival one another for the title of least convincing conversion story. Is it Romney's transformation to committed pro-lifer through a discussion with a scientist of the issue of embryonic stem-cell research? Or Giuliani's new appreciation for gun rights after 9/11, something he never mentioned publicly until a speech at the National Rifle Association?
It's the uncomfortable fit both men make as standard-bearer of a conservative party that helped create the opening for Thompson. The former Tennessee senator graced the stage of a Republican debate for the first time this week. He performed adequately, a low-key presence who -- oddly enough for a Hollywood actor -- lacked the wattage of his top-tier rivals. He's still acclimating to the race and at this rate will be fully prepared and ready to run in the spring of next year, when the race will probably have been decided.
That leaves, among the plausible contenders, John McCain. His campaign crashed a few months ago because of his support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, but an ember still burns amidst the wreckage because McCain is more authentic than Romney, more conservative than Giuliani and more vibrant than Thompson.
Once it seemed that the race would boil down to McCain, as the front-running candidate distrusted by conservatives, and an alternative candidate to his right. Now, Giuliani has supplanted McCain in that top position. Pound for pound, Giuliani might be the most talented political horseflesh in the field, an excellent debater and proven leader. He'll need all that talent -- and probably more -- to overcome positions on cultural issues that are badly out of step with the GOP and a personal life as mayor that made Bill Clinton's look discreet.
Romney, Thompson and McCain are all grappling to be the alternative to Giuliani, with underfunded former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee playing the spoiler. Romney is so eager to fight with Giuliani because it gives him pride of place in this anti-Giuliani competition.
If only the grounds on which he is fighting him weren't so dispiritingly backward-looking. He chose to rap Giuliani in the latest debate regarding the New Yorker's opposition to the line-item veto in the 1990s. The line-item veto was a fresh idea roughly in 1980, but its relevance today is close to nil. Romney's attack is typical of a race that has been run largely on the basis of the campaigns highlighting one another's past heterodoxies in YouTube videos and e-mailed press releases.
It's as if the candidates have not noticed that they are facing a likely Democratic candidate, in Hillary Clinton, whose favorable ratings are inching upward toward 50 percent, and a Democratic Party with large leads in the polls on almost all the issues and an enormous advantage on fundraising. Gotcha games, conservative bromides and ritualistic invocations of Reagan aren't what the moment calls for. But, for the most part, it's what Republicans are getting.
Yes, alas, this is it.