Now we're getting someplace.
Over the past several days, Mitt Romney has turned his attention to the fight against Barack Obama, Rick Santorum has left the Republican race, and Newt Gingrich has signaled that he sees what's coming and will support the eventual Republican nominee.
That's a start for the Republicans. But seeing the road ahead and knowing how to traverse it are two different things, and here both Santorum and Gingrich provide guideposts.
Santorum leaves behind a formidable coalition of religious conservatives who are worried about social and moral corrosion and feeling the effects of the recession more sharply than Romney's supporters. The former Massachusetts governor does not speak to their issues, nor in their idiom. They will support him in November, but not ardently.
Now take the remarks former Speaker Gingrich made in Magnolia, Del., just the other day:
"I find it very difficult to get across to the national media that when we're out here with everyday Americans," he said, "there is a real desire to clarify how we are going to beat Obama; there's a real desire that we have a conservative candidate with a conservative platform."
Embedded in this Magnolia Statement are two points: The first is that the national media are out of touch. No big revelation there. The second — more striking now that Santorum has suspended his campaign and his supporters are in suspended animation — is that the Republicans still haven't figured out how to reconcile what many of them want (a conservative nominee) with what they likely will get (Mitt Romney).
Indeed, this will be the second straight election in which the Republicans are caught in that conundrum. The last time, they nominated Sen. John McCain, every Democrat's favorite Republican and, though he was a geographical descendant of Barry Goldwater, who ran for president from Arizona, hardly an ideological descendant of the father of modern Republican conservatism. This is a frustrating development for conservatives; Venus, for example, crosses the sun's disk twice in a lifetime, but not twice in four years.
Unlike the transit of Venus, though, the transit of a moderate Republican across the political sky now seems like a regular occurrence. That is especially so because Santorum, with just over $1 million in the bank, did not survive to fight even in Pennsylvania, where his prospects were not sunny despite his home-field advantage.
Expect the frustration to build, not abate, now. Members of Team Santorum had every reason to think their man was ideally suited for the primaries that followed Pennsylvania. He was well-positioned to sweep through Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Nebraska, Arkansas and Kentucky, perhaps even to prevail in Texas, where the usual Romney advantages would have been blunted because his staff had not bothered to establish a ground organization there, figuring Gov. Rick Perry would be unbeatable in his home state.
Look at Texas and its tantalizing 155 delegates, more than in the first five contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada — combined. On paper, Romney fits roughly into the Bush profile: A wealthy politician with an Ivy League degree and an overachieving father with solid Republican bona fides. But those are surface comparisons. The two Bushes literally dug beneath the surface in the oil business and got their boots dusty on the dry plains of West Texas.
Though Santorum didn't survive until the Texas primary, the identity crisis within the GOP will. It is reminiscent of the crisis among liberal Democrats in the late 1940s after the party lost control of Capitol Hill in 1946 and had a rebellion on the right (when the Dixiecrats walked out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention) and on the left (when former Vice President Henry A. Wallace ran for president as a Progressive).
Now the Republicans have conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they can celebrate the virtual completion of the nomination process, ending a senseless bludgeoning of their standard-bearer. But at the same time, there are traces of despair in the air now that Santorum is gone. At best, the Republicans are in like with their apparent nominee; hardly any of them fell in love.
The Santorum faction is not the only portion of the Republican coalition that seems aimless right now.
On Capitol Hill, House Republicans haven't settled on a narrative for the November election. They thought it would be a brutal critique of Barack Obama, but top GOP strategists fear that the president has controlled the message so well in recent months that their original plans need to be redrafted.
With Romney the all-but-certain nominee, House Republicans may feel they will be campaigning on their own. They look at Romney's political wardrobe and see an Eisenhower jacket (no coattails) in the closet.
The greatest irony of Campaign 2012 is the high number of endorsements Romney has won — and the low level of enthusiasm he has generated.
That profile matches the one the first George Bush sketched as he ran for president in 1988, but he became the only vice president since Martin Van Buren to be elected directly to the White House.
So there is hope for Romney. His quest for the nomination may have ended Tuesday, but the challenges he encountered remain — and the departure of Santorum only underlines the difficulties he faces.
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David M. Shribman, a North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.