KEENE: Time to stop kidding ourselves

It’s going to be Rick or Mitt

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Rick Santorum’s surge in Michigan and beyond has everyone in a tizzy. Those who like Rick believe he’ll make the strongest general election candidate or the best president. Those who just don’t like Mitt Romney are ecstatic. Yet voters who don’t share either the strong opinion of Rick or his chances should he actually win the GOP nomination don’t quite know what to do.

As a result, they and others who never really thought the Republican field was anything to write home about continue to look behind every tree for a savior who might be able to join the fray even at this late date, force a deadlock at the convention and come out a winner.

President Obama’s managers love the idea of a deadlocked convention that might force the Republicans to spend all their money fighting each other and, in the best of all possible worlds, nominate someone with little or no chance of beating Mr. Obama in November.

Political junkies and reporters are analyzing numbers and fantasizing that all of this will come to pass. The last real nomination fight in either party took place in 1976 when Ronald Reagan seemed on the verge of snatching the presidential nomination from an incumbent president at that year’s GOP convention in Kansas City, Mo.

It didn’t happen, but until President Ford’s forces actually won, it made a great story filled with political drama and high adventure. Delegates were counted and recounted. Analysts studied the rules and wondered if bound delegates might risk jail to vote their conscience. And across the country, reporters covering the battle enjoyed the spotlight as never before.

I was a part of the Reagan army that year and will admit that it was exciting. But in the end, the delegates voted as bound, there weren’t enough uncommitted delegates to change what those of us in the know understood was going to happen, and the likelihood of it happening this year is far more remote than it was back then.

Oh, it’s possible to create scenarios that result in a deadlock in Tampa and to imagine frustrated delegates and party elders deciding that none of the candidates who braved the caucuses and primaries are as strong as they’d hoped, but the idea that they or anyone else is likely to be in a position to unveil and nominate someone other than those who make up the field as it exists today strikes me as highly unlikely.

First, it will be a week before we know whether Rick Santorum’s surge is real. I was with Bob Dole in 1988 and like Mr. Santorum this year, he seemed all but done going into those same Midwestern states. Mr. Dole had beaten George H.W. Bush in Iowa, but faced defeat after defeat thereafter until voters in South Dakota and Minnesota gave him new life - or what seemed for a few days to be new life.

In fact, Mr. Dole’s victories generated new poll numbers but proved little. Things settled down in a week, and Mr. Bush’s money and organization approaching the Super Tuesday primaries brought us all back to earth. The likelihood is that by Tuesday, when Michiganders head for the polls, Mr. Santorum will be wondering what happened to his surge. Polls coming out of Michigan and elsewhere already show Mr. Romney coming back.

This isn’t to say Mr. Santorum won’t win Michigan; anything seems possible this year, but if he does and continues to win, don’t look for him to fold his tent and go home to Pennsylvania or Virginia just because party grandees would prefer somebody else. If he somehow manages to vanquish Mr. Romney, he’ll be the nominee.

The only two candidates on the ballot in Michigan and beyond who won’t be nominated in Tampa are Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Republicans had better get used to the fact that their nominee is either going to be Mr. Romney or Mr. Santorum - not Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie or anyone else who isn’t out there.

But the speculation and the analysis will continue. It happens every four years, but in today’s world with bound delegates and no real bosses capable of delivering delegates as part of the sorts of deals that took place in another time, what we see is what we’re going to get. Stalwart Republicans will eventually tinker with the process and not blame the nominee.

Come what may, what we get won’t be all that bad. A tough nomination fight usually produces a more able general election candidate, and both Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum have proven their mettle since taking the stage for the first of the uncountable debates that have dominated this race.

The weaker candidates have fallen by the wayside. Those who weren’t in the game when the first hand was dealt more than a year ago aren’t going to get in now and beat the survivors. Whichever man wins the nomination will be as ready as he can be for the tough, close contest awaiting him this fall.

David A. Keene is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union and a member of the board of the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.

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