Michael Smerconish: One by one, GOP candidates ride the wave, while Obama laughs

By Michael Smerconish

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Thursday, Dec. 1 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidates from left, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum participate in a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011.

Jim Cole, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Say hello, wave goodbye.

Roughly three-quarters of Republican primary voters refuse to embrace front-runner Mitt Romney, despite his nearly flawless campaign thus far. In each of the debates, Romney has been focused and strong. Tight control of his public appearances and media access has prevented any gaffes. The closest thing to a YouTube moment came when he told a heckler at the Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people."

Still, suspicion of Romney lurks in conservative circles, partly attributable to his passage of Romneycare, considered a blemish by tea party types intent on throwing President Obama out of office for his passage of Obamacare. Onetime Romney health-care architect and MIT professor Jonathan Gruber didn't help that perception when in a recent interview he compared the Romney and Obama initiatives and concluded that "they're the same." Additionally, there is the matter of Romney's shifting positions over time on bedrock conservative issues such as abortion and gay rights.

As a result, the anti-Romney core of the GOP has allowed itself to be courted by a variety of suitors. Like a wave that ripples through a stadium, this group has flirted with different candidates. However, once the media follow suit, the candidates have withered under the subsequent scrutiny.

Michele Bachmann caught the wave in August after winning the Ames straw poll. The triumph, however, wasn't enough to overcome a series of embarrassing gaffes. She famously mixed up Concord, N.H., with Concord, Mass. She said John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa, when it was really the birthplace of John Wayne Gacy. She extended birthday greetings to Elvis on the anniversary of his death. Claims that her husband's clinic has "prayed away the gay" didn't help. No one of these was a knockout blow, but collectively they fostered a view that she was ill-equipped. And so the wave shifted.

The next candidate to hang 10 was Rick Perry. He entered the race amid great conservative expectations, only to see them fade with his less-than-stellar debate performances. Sadly for Perry, he etched a spot on the debate highlight reel when he said he would eliminate three federal departments but could name only two. Alongside the clips of Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy" and CNN's Bernard Shaw asking Michael Dukakis what he'd do if his wife was raped, we will forever watch Perry say: "The third agency of government I would do away with ... the Education, the Commerce. And let's see ... the third one, I can't, sorry ... oops."

The tide shifted again, and it was time for Herman Cain to boogie. But with the new scrutiny of the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza came revelations of complaints of sexual harassment. And under the glare, he, too, displayed his frailties. A routine question about Libya from a newspaper editorial board went viral when Cain struggled ("I gotta go back to ... got all this stuff twirling around in my head"). Last week, he was left wondering, "How do you say delicious in Cuban?"

After Bachmann, Perry, and Cain crashed in the surf, the new wave runner was Newt Gingrich. Once written off for infidelity and his current wife's penchant for charging jewelry at Tiffany's, Gingrich was front and center in the most recent debate long enough to defend a $300,000 payment from conservative scourge Freddie Mac (which was reportedly actually part of $1.6 million to $1.8 million worth of work), which he defended as payment for his having acted as a "historian." The whitecaps of the Gingrich surge are already evident.

All the while Ron Paul has been respectable, but static, showing no prospect of expanding his hard-core base.

So now what?

There are three possibilities: First, the previously discontented finally settle on Romney, which seems unlikely, at least for now. Second, Rick Santorum finally gets on his surfboard for what would surely be a short ride. Third, the wave could shift to Jon Huntsman.

But where Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich have provided continuous fodder for SNL, to those who make up the GOP wave, Huntsman has been a veritable laugh track.

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