WASHINGTON — It's a good thing the GOP presidential race slows down from here: The candidates are even more tired than the voters. And, boy, does it show.
Mitt Romney, who scaled back his public schedule this week to get a break, has slept in his own bed just twice since Christmas. Rick Santorum's been making the kind of flubs that come with exhaustion. Newt Gingrich got caught sleeping on camera a few weeks back, and looked like he just might topple over.
And then there's 76-year-old Ron Paul, last in the delegate hunt. The oldest candidate in the race, Paul is running a campaign that's a study in Ever. So. Slow. Pacing.
Maybe that's why he seemed so chipper when he turned up on the "The Tonight Show" this week, chatting about an exercise regimen that "helps my brain relax" while the other candidates were scrambling for every last vote in Illinois.
Does it matter if the candidates are exhausted? Oh, yeah.
That's when they make mistakes, get testy and lose perspective. At best, they may just seem to be off stride, muffing key lines and sounding, well, tired.
That can hurt, especially in an election year when the president is able to cruise into the general election without a primary fight. Barack Obama's still got a country to run, and he's already scheduling lots of fundraisers, but it's nothing like the pace of his opponents.
In an odd sort of way, there can be an upside to the brutal grind of campaign life.
"You do get the snot beaten out of you," Rep. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said after she dropped out of the race earlier this year. But she went on to say that it's a good way to sort out the very toughest candidates for "the toughest job in the world."
"It made me a better person," she said.
Small comfort to Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, who have been slogging through the week-in, week-out grind of primaries, fundraisers, town halls, interviews, hotel rooms and airplane food.
"I woke up this morning and found I did not have any shirts that would be appropriate for a fundraiser, so I had to wash my shirt out in the sink," Romney confessed Tuesday, in an interview sandwiched between a Chicago fundraiser and an Illinois victory party. "And then I thought, 'How am I going to get this thing dried fast enough?' So I got the iron out. It took me about 20 minutes to iron it dry. The collar is finally dry."
Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's press secretary during the 1992 campaign and then at the White House, recalls that Clinton "made all of his worst mistakes when he was tired."
"But when every primary feels like a single-elimination contest, you can't afford to take a day off," she said.
Overall, Myers said, Romney seems to showing the stamina of the "Energizer bunny." But she said the Republicans also seem to be suffering from a lack of "message discipline" as they dart from one event to the next without taking time to think through exactly what they want voters to hear.
"That's probably a function of getting tired," she said.
After Saturday's voting in Louisiana, the candidates get a 10-day break before Washington, D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin hold primaries on April 3. That's a welcome respite, but there still will be ads to cut, supporters to cajole, money to raise and all the rest.
The lighter schedule is coming none too soon.
Santorum, Romney's chief rival, has had to backpedal on a series of ill-thought remarks in recent days, prompting him to wish for a "do-over" after saying the unemployment rate wasn't a crucial issue to his campaign.
Some missteps aren't all that surprising when a recent — and typical — campaign day for Santorum had events or interviews scheduled for 8 a.m., 9:05 a.m., 9:15 a.m. 10 a.m., 10:20 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., in seven cities in Illinois and Missouri, followed by a late-night flight in stormy weather to Louisiana for church services the next morning.
"At the age of 53, with seven children ages 20 to 3, it's not exactly the best time to be going out and running for president of the United States," he said last weekend in Effingham, Ill. He'll sometimes sprint home to McLean, Va., for less than a day of down time with his family before revving back up for another long stretch of campaigning.
Santorum will catch a break wherever he can get one. That left him apologizing last week after a less-than-flattering photo surfaced of him asnooze, shirtless, in a chaise lounge during a campaign stop in Puerto Rico.
"I'm sure that's not a pretty sight," he allowed.
Gingrich appears to still be working on perfecting the power nap.
Earlier this month he drifted off, on camera, while waiting for his turn to address a live-streamed meeting of a pro-Israel lobby.
"I understand you have a panel," he told the moderator as he snapped open his eyes. "I look forward to any questions."
An awkward pause ensued while Gingrich waited for questions.
"Mr. Speaker, there is not a panel," the moderator informed him. "Please do continue, sir."
Gingrich may have done himself more good by staying up until 2 a.m. dancing with his wife, Callista, at a hotel lounge in Jackson, Miss., a few days later.
The former House speaker later pronounced it great fun, and called it a "two-hour vacation."
Early on, Gingrich caught grief for taking a couple weeks off the campaign to take his wife on a Mediterranean cruise, and he still gets home many weekends to rest and attend Callista's Sunday choir performances, but he's put in his share of late nights campaigning.
And that's when he's prone to loosen up and get a little punchy, producing what reporters call "late-night Newt" performances.
On one recent evening, Gingrich tested out possible bumper sticker and T-shirt slogans, such as "With Newt, Drill Here, Pay Less," and "Barack Obama, Pay More, Pay Weird."
Romney, for his part, savors the rare chance to sleep in his own bed.
"Oh, boy, we're headed home," he said earlier this month when the primary calendar gave him a pit stop in his home state of Massachusetts after two straight months on the road.
He knew it wouldn't last, though.
"Tomorrow, we wake up and we start again. And the next day, we'll do the same," Romney said. "And so we'll go, day by day, step by step, door by door, heart to heart. There will be good days. There will be bad days. Always long hours, never enough time to get everything done."
Maybe not enough time to wash his shirt. But, hey, Romney says at least he gets "a lot of frequent flyer points," for staying at all those hotels.
And on Romney's campaign bus, the candidate can count on a never-ending supply of one of his favorite comfort foods: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in Minneapolis, Beth Fouhy in New York, Steve Peoples in Chicago and Kasie Hunt and Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.
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