Are whispers among GOP insiders intensifying over the prospect of a brokered convention? CNN says party elders are growing increasingly skittish over the state of the Republican presidential primary:
In a whispering campaign not ready to go public, some senior Republicans are so anxious about the state of the GOP race they are actually considering the unheard of: a scenario that would lead to another candidate entering the Republican primary race, and potentially an open convention. They are not unhappy enough, however, to go on the record calling for another candidate to enter the fray...Rick Santorum's recent rise in the polls - and what some see as his electability problems - has struck a nerve with Republicans. "There is something called agenda control," said one unaffiliated GOP strategist. "Santorum does not have it. Instead of talking about the economy, he's been going down rabbit holes for the last four or five days." Santorum's emphasis on cultural issues may intensify his conservative and evangelical support and help him win the nomination or at least differentiate himself from Newt Gingrich. The fear is he may also be narrowing his support in a general election population.
And Santorum's surging candidacy is not the only concern for senior Republicans. Mitt Romney's inability to close the deal has also raised eyebrows - and angst. And the anxiety will only intensify should Romney lose his home state of Michigan in the primary on February 28, several senior Republicans told CNN. "Michigan is the whole shooting match," said one senior GOP strategist not aligned with a campaign. Says another: "If Romney loses Michigan, all hell breaks loose." Given that real possibility, one knowledgeable GOP source confirms that some Republicans are circulating the deadlines and the basic math that would allow another candidate to get into the nomination fight and take it all the way to the convention. More than a half dozen states' filing deadlines have yet to pass. A majority of the delegates to the national convention are still up for grabs. One more factor to be considered: many states are choosing their delegates proportionally, which makes it easier for a candidate pick up delegates without outright winning a state.
Santorum's highlighting of cultural issues could play well for him in the short-term. But the worry among Republicans is that his views will raise the question of his electability. "After a while, Republican voters will start asking whether this is the guy to take on Obama," says one GOP strategist. In addition to the fear of a potential loss to Obama, some Republicans worry about losing the House of Representatives if Santorum were at the top of the ticket. “There is no faith he would bring independent or moderate voters. If he does well on Super Tuesday you’ll have serious people talking about convention strategies etc,” one Republican congressional leadership aide told CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash. "Santorum would so alienate voters, especially women…he would be lucky to carry a dozen states," one senior Republican told CNN, referring to Santorum's disapproval of pre-natal screening.
(1) Republican voters abhor the notion of a last-minute substitute candidate, as well they should. This nominating process has been underway for the better part of a year. Although few conservatives are genuinely thrilled with the field as it stands, they at least appreciate that the remaining candidates have participated in the rough-and-tumble business of democracy, upon which our republic is built. The concept of an elite cabal privately scheming to undo the voters' will is insulting. Such a power play would be an affront to the millions of voters who have already cast ballots, to the thousands of donors who have contributed hard-earned money to one or more of the declared candidates, and to the candidates themselves, who have played by the rules and subjected themselves and their families to searing media scrutiny.
(2) As one of the cavalcade of (unnamed) strategists quoted in the story above asserts, this anti-democratic gambit would stamp the GOP's ticket to Loserville in the fall. Even if the surprise nominee turned out to be a movement conservative (Sarah Palin has suggested she'd be open to "helping" the party under the right circumstances), the disenfranchised Republican electorate would likely remain profoundly disenchanted by the whole spectacle. I suspect independent voters would be equally nauseated by the stench of backroom deals and democracy circumvention -- of which President Obama is a great fan, incidentally. Also, as the press reported all of these developments with breathless glee, they'd be sure to raise plenty of brow-furrowed questions about whether the new candidate had been properly vetted. And they'd be right to do so. Candidates' instincts and character are often exposed by the unforgiving glare of the national spotlight. Independent of one's feelings about any or all of them, we have learned a lot about Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul over the last year. Put simply, a political shotgun marriage is not preferable to the lengthy courtship of retail campaigning, debates, fundraising, and votes. If party elites are intent on destroying the base's trust in the Republican brand, this would surely be an effective coup de grace. Imagine yourself in a polling booth during a future primary contest, trying to fight off the nagging question of whether your vote matters, or if the powers that be might simply overrule you if they're displeased with your choice.
(3) All of this chatter about a brokered convention -- all three cablers are discussing it at length today -- is counter-productive and provides oxygen to a Democrat narrative. The pernicious meme is that the Republican field is so terrible that none of the candidates stand a chance against Obama in November. Not only does fresh polling suggest otherwise, persistent housing and unemployment woes will continue to plague the incumbent. RCP numbers guru Sean Trende says Obama's recent polling bounce appears to be fading. This president's failed agenda renders him exceedingly vulnerable. But that truth is obscured when influential Republicans continually perpetuate the argument that the general election is a lost cause absent a (to be determined) white knight galloping in to save the day. In short, these leaked grumbles help exactly no one, except for President Obama -- especially because a brokered convention isn't going to happen.
UPDATE - National Review editor Rich Lowry, whom I respect immensely and who has an incisive new column defending Rick Santorum's social conservatism up today, says he'd be "perfectly happy" to see an alternate scenario play out:
The Republican race so far has been a contest between the weakness of Romney and the weakness of his opponents. Romney looks incredibly vulnerable at the moment in Michigan and even in Arizona, but Santorum may be frittering away his opportunity–and so it goes. If Romney does lose Michigan or Michigan and Arizona, who would be the Republican savior? It would have to be someone who really wants to be president, has a taste for high political risk, and has very little to lose. The party doesn’t seem to have many people with those qualities, or the field would already have been bigger.
I respectfully disagree, for the reasons enumerated above.