- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Get ready to start from scratch in the race for the White House. The smart set has been pretending for months that polls tell us who the front-runners are for the Republican nomination. So much for the smart set. Now the voters get to choose, and their decision - the only one that matters - probably will surprise us.

Iowa and New Hampshire start the bidding, and they usually disagree with each other. Then a few dozen other states weigh in. What we’re left with in the end is often nothing like we thought it would be in the beginning.

Suspend your disbelief. Everything we thought we knew up until now is about to become obsolete.

Will it be Mitt or Newt or Ron? Might it be someone else? We’re about to find out, making speculation - which Washington insiders have reveled in for many months - useless. How reassuring that is.

The one thing we know is that a tremendous number of voters, especially in Iowa, have no idea whom they’ll vote for. The result: 2012 is likely to be one of those toss-up election years. The only thing that’s clear is that Republicans think they have a chance to win it all. Exactly who will lead them to this promised land is up for grabs.

If Mitt Romney wins Iowa, he’ll be the odds-on favorite to take the nomination. If he loses, it’s anybody’s race. The Florida primary, which comes after South Carolina’s, will give us the first real signal about whom the GOP will pick for the top of the ticket. But even that might leave questions unanswered.

The American public is as angry as it’s ever been, and that says a lot. Voters have been restless for the past few election cycles, and this one could be the topper, given economic uncertainty and the unresolved federal budget deficit.

That means there’s no telling how the voters will manifest their fears and frustrations. They could, in the view of the establishment, lose their heads entirely and pick Rep. Ron Paul in Iowa. Newt Gingrich could have a strong showing in New Hampshire and, once again, in South Carolina and then power ahead to win the nomination. Mitt Romney could finally find his footing or fall into the political abyss.

It’s all possible, and that’s a remarkable state of affairs.

Republicans tend to be an orderly bunch. They like hierarchy and structure. But the voters aren’t satisfied with anything that’s going on - in Washington or in the economy as a whole - and comity has broken down as a result.

The conventional wisdom on every front has been challenged. Can a politician succeed with a completely - or almost completely - electronic campaign, on television and the Internet? Will the gigantic money from anonymous super-PACs trump everything else, including the retail politicking that traditionally has been so important in Iowa and New Hampshire?

We don’t know, but it’s all possible now. In fact, the possibilities are endless, given how few people actually end up voting most of the time and how weak is their loyalty even to the candidate they say they support.

This shouldn’t be a shock. After all, we already have a president whom almost nobody had heard of before he entered the race. He was voted into the White House a few short years after being elevated from a state legislature to the U.S. Senate. This year could be a repeat, though on the other side of the aisle.

Is this unstable condition good or bad? For Republican partisans, it’s clearly unsettling and potentially horrific. By choosing a damaged nominee, the GOP could hand the Democrats a victory in November that they wouldn’t otherwise deserve.

But that’s not what history tells us. The wilder and more arduous the nominating process, the tougher the candidate is likely to be in the fall. The Democrats are preparing one of the meanest, dirtiest and best-financed presidential campaigns in history. The Republican standard-bearer had better be ready to show grace under fire, because he is going to be shot at a lot and from almost every direction.

So take a deep breath. Forget what you think you know and take the election as it comes. The time for guessing is over. The voters get to choose.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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