Getting Republicans to line up behind Mitt Romney, it turns out, is like trying to stuff a cat into a trash can. No matter how you present the feline to the receptacle, at least one claw always manages to reach out at the last second and cling desperately to the rim.
Romney has been the anointed front-runner for four years now in a party that likes its front-runners. Nothing contents Republicans more than an orderly transition of power.
But not this time. The long list of slain or surrendered GOP saviors is astonishing to consider.
Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and, now, Herman Cain.
In this round-robin primary, all anybody has had to do is stand still in one place long enough and eventually you take your turn as the front-runner. Unless, of course, you are Jon Huntsman Jr., who is nothing more than a penumbra of Beltway parlor speculation — Washington's idea of "a good conservative."
It appears the only thing Republican primary voters can agree upon for any length of time is that they just don't want to nominate Mr. Romney. Other than the deep antipathy for President Obama, the discomfort with Mr. Romney is the only enduring theme of the 2012 GOP primary process.
This is how we wind up in this absurd situation, where angry citizens armed with pitchforks demanding to throw all the bums out have coalesced around ... the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
GOP voters were looking for a snow machine-racing, Harley-rumbling, trash-talking, manure-kicking executive with a Mississippi twang and now appear to be settling for a man whose giant portrait hangs in the grand Speaker's Lobby off the House floor.
No one in either party has lived in the bowels of this town longer than Newt Gingrich, and yet he appears to be peaking at the perfect moment to capture the nomination.
As strange as it all may be, here is why the former speaker really could win.
First, Mr. Gingrich is truly Clintonian in all his faults. Yes, there are many, but they have been out there for all to see for a long time. His laundry has been so well-aired over the decades that we are not likely to see Gloria Allred midwifing any new salacious scandals now.
Second, before Mr. Gingrich was the ultimate insider, he was the ultimate outsider. He was a legendary back-bencher in the House before he became speaker, and he was at his best crashing the ramparts from the outside, such as during the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
Finally, then as now, he is a man of ideas. The improbable recovery of his campaign since its summer collapse is entirely owing to the force of his ideas, laid out in so many debates.
Newt Gingrich is a romantic conservative.
Sure, he thinks that a system that takes from workers and gives to those who refuse to work is evil. But he is most passionate about the evils of a system that destroys and enslaves those it teaches to live off government handouts.
It is the most profound and mature concept of "Don't Tread on Me." And the perfect pitch for this crop of angry voters.
• Charles Hurt's column appears Wednesdays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org