Ed Kilgore

The political fumbling by Christian conservatives has been even worse this presidential cycle than it was in 2008, when their blood-enemy, John McCain, won the top spot on the Republican ticket. The Christian Right’s fatal failure this time was its inability to form a consensus behind a single candidate. Last weekend’s Texas conclave of religious conservatives, engineered by Family Research Center president and Christian Right warhorse Tony Perkins, initially appeared to have generated a united front behind Rick Santorum.

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Sorting out cause and effect in political campaigns is not always simple. Some people look at John McCain’s nomination in 2008 and Mitt Romney’s success in Iowa and New Hampshire this year and see highly fortuitous demolition derbies.

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Last night was, by all accounts, a good night for Mitt Romney. He went into the New Hampshire primary needing two things: to win by a significant margin and to leave no one else with a plausible path to victory. The results from the Granite State fulfilled both of these Romney criteria, and it’s now extremely likely Mitt Romney will win the Republican presidential nomination this year.

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It is usually assumed that the invisible primary ends with the Iowa Caucuses, when the party rank-and-file begin to have their say. But thanks to an exceptionally chaotic and unpredictable pre-caucus period, the central dynamic of the invisible primary—Mitt Romney’s wooing of conservatives skeptical of him—has been extended.

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As of this writing, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are very nearly tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses, and Ron Paul is close enough to make it a functional three-way tie. But no matter who eventually “wins,” Mitt Romney has already won in terms of Iowa’s impact on the overall nominating process. That’s the case no matter what tomorrow’s spin on the Caucus results suggests, for the simple reason that Paul cannot win the nomination, and Santorum is a very long shot.

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Having spent much of 2011 writing incessantly about the Republican presidential nominating contest, I’m simultaneously relieved and saddened by the impending end of the “invisible primary” and the beginning, with next Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, of the actual voting.

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The 2012 “invisible primary” is looking likely to end just how and where it began: with Republican ideologues anxiously looking to Iowa for signs of an electable “true conservative” alternative to Mitt Romney. Depending on whom you ask, they have found no such candidate, or have found too many of them. In either case, despite their fevered hopes the First-in-the-Nation Caucus is not likely to play its intended role as an all-important arbiter where ideological squishes are disciplined or destroyed and the faithful find their champion.

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In an invisible primary where it seems everyone other than Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum is fated to have his or her brief day in the sun, two new polls from Iowa show the indefatigable Ron Paul now leading the field among likely caucus-goers, with just two weeks left before actual voting occurs. The media, much to the consternation of fanatical Paulists, is already writing him off as another flash-in-the pan, his libertarianism too extreme to gain the support of moderate conservatives and too at odds with social conservatives to win over their vital support.

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As the 2012 invisible primary lurches to a close, the Republican Party looks more likely than ever to be in the process of presenting its caucus and primary voters with the choice between one candidate they don’t want to nominate and another their fellow-Americans don’t want to elect. Mitt Romney simply hasn’t grown on primary voters; if anything, in recent weeks, he’s soured. And Newt Gingrich, for his part, would enter the general election as the weakest GOP nominee since Barry Goldwater.

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In the lead up to voting in the presidential nominating contest, the only thing that reliably rivals the scrutiny received by Iowa is the disparagement expressed against the tyranny of the Great Corn Idol. With its unrepresentative electorate, its peculiar demands on candidates, and its odd procedures for making its preferences manifest, the Iowa caucuses have been singled out by many as an ill-conceived ritual whose time is long past.

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