It was so clear for a moment: Mitt Romney was in the lead in the presidential nomination race. Newt Gingrich was a distant second. Rick Santorum — the youthful candidate — was appealing to the socially conservative voters. And Ron Paul was hanging on.
Then things got weird.
The Republican Party in Iowa ripped Romney's victory away and gave it to Santorum. Then socially conservative voters in South Carolina favored Gingrich over Santorum, and Gingrich won that state's primary. Ron Paul has turned out to be the favorite of young Republicans. And as the focus shifts to Florida, everything is up in the air.
Is this really the way it's supposed to go — that as the nomination process proceeds things get murkier, not clearer? That as the field gets smaller — after Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry fall by the wayside — it gets even harder to tell who is in the lead?
And now there is talk of sudden last-minute, Rosie Ruiz-like entries. Is it really possible that Jeb Bush or Sarah Palin or someone else will join the fray just in time to cross the marathon's finish line — and that it's really not too late to do so? Such a move might throw the whole parade into an elephants-run-amok panic.
The Democrats are famous for free-for-all primary seasons. But the Republicans have a reputation for orderliness, for queuing up and nominating the next person in line.
In some ways this time around, the Republican race is not like a race at all. It's more like a contemporary version of the ancient TV game show To Tell the Truth, in which panelists had to separate the actual person from impostors. "Will the real front-runner please stand up?" No, not you. No, not you either.
"Any time we think we know how the nomination will play out, events throw the trajectory off course," says Robert Erikson, a political science professor at Columbia University. "At least it has been that way so far."
So far, so weird.
One by one, each of the remaining four candidates has tried to gain momentum, only to have it turn into no-mentum.
There have been many madcap moments. Here are just a few:
- Rick Perry saying in a debate that he plans to abolish three federal agencies — Commerce, Education — and forgetting the third.
- Herman Cain's YouTube ad showing his campaign manager smoking and Jon Huntsman's mustache-wearing daughters mocking Cain's ad with their own YouTube ad.
- Huntsman — hard on the heels of his "ticket to ride!" third-place finish in New Hampshire — receiving the endorsement of South Carolina's largest newspaper, only to pull out of the race that same day.
And, as we are reminded every four years, just about every state has a different way of getting the job done. Straw polls. Caucuses. Absentee ballots. Open primaries. Closed primaries.
What's next — a Facebook primary? Like it or not, Facebook is already holding one. At last check, via Politico, Romney and Paul are neck and neck.
Three Down, 47 To Go
Is the nomination process just too much of a mess?
"There is no problem with the process, except that it begins too soon," says Diana Banister, whose Virginia-based firm, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is working for Gingrich in 2012.
The debates and primaries should just be beginning, she says, and end in June. "Yet, because of all the maneuvering by the early states, we've already been through nine months of debates and campaigning, which means people are already getting tired of it — even though we've got 47 states to go."
Such scrutiny of the candidates is a good thing, Banister says. "That's what primaries are all about."
She says, "The hand-wringing that we all have to get behind one candidate and unify has to stop."
The most important challenge for the Republican Party, she says, is to "find the absolute best candidate we possibly can."
The numerous debates "are winnowing the field and showing who really has the muster to take on a sitting president of the United States," she says.
Banister is in no rush. "There's plenty of time to pick our nominee and prepare for the fall election," she says. "The more honed and skilled they are by their fellow Republicans, the better able they will be to take on the Democratic president."
Question: So could things get any crazier? Answer: Maybe so.
Right now, even with all the ups and downs, the contest appears to be a two-candidate race between Romney and Gingrich, says Robert Erikson. But he quickly sketches a scenario in which neither man gets the majority of delegates.
Moving forward — through the 47 other states — "Paul can win his share, especially in caucus states, and thus cause the convention to go multiple ballots or make a deal," Erikson says. "Or, either of the two major contenders could implode, causing a free-for-all of new entries."
Or, he adds, "with the same two front-runners, some third candidate gets in the ring late. Those who study the entry dates say this is not likely to happen, but it might if it becomes likely that a late entry could throw the choice to the convention."
And, as everyone knows, it can get really hot — and weirder — in Tampa in August.