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GOP primary battles strengthen candidates for the main event

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One gets the sense that voters are growing increasingly impatient with the GOP’s seemingly interminable primary battles to choose a nominee who can beat President Obama in the fall.

After an exhausting primary season of bitter debates, unending TV campaign attack ads, an untold number of gaffes, embarrassing memory meltdowns, and even a womanizing scandal that drove an early front-runner from the race, the contest still may have a long way to go.

It seems as if this race has been going on forever, and reporters are picking up complaints that the contest has run far too long and Republicans want to pick the nominee sooner rather than later. Primary battles cost a lot of money; they can deplete the party’s war chest for the general election to come; and there’s the danger the party will be so bitterly divided and the nominee so bloodied that the opposition will be too weak to mount a credible campaign.

I don’t buy any of that. I think our system of running the prospective candidates through a long gauntlet of caucuses and primaries is exactly what is required to ensure that we weed out the worst and weakest among them, dig out the skeletons in their closets, and test their ability to mount a well- financed national campaign that can go the distance.

One of the singular manifestations of the GOP’s search for a nominee in the 2011-12 election cycle has been the surprisingly large number of early contenders who sped to the top of the polls, only to see their support vanish in the blink of an eye, forcing them from the race.

We had a former pizza-chain executive who wanted to impose the first national sales tax in American history, on top of all the other sales taxes, and about whom relatively little was known. A sordid womanizing scandal forced him to suspend his campaign.

Then there was the folksy, late-entry Texas governor who cut ahead of everyone in line simply on the basis of being a chief executive of a big state that had created lots of jobs. It turned out he couldn’t express himself very well, often went all but silent in the TV debates and couldn’t remember the name of a huge federal department he said he would abolish. He never recovered.

Then came a former speaker of the House who had led his party to victory in the mid-1990s after 40 years in the minority. He shot ahead in the polls after fiercely attacking the moderator in one of the early debates. He fell behind, only to make a second comeback, only to collapse when it was apparent that he clearly was not presidential material. He finished in last place in Illinois Tuesday.

The party primary system we have was developed to vet candidates like these and cool the passions of the voters who may get swept away by a slick, Elmer Gantry-sounding politico only to discover the candidate lacked substance, stability, focus and a broad base of support.

So here we are, having endured primary contests in 34 states, with the field effectively winnowed down to just two candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Each has weaknesses and strengths. But at this writing, it appears that Romney is going to be the nominee - the steady, focused, long-distance runner who knows that cross-country races are won by marathoners with stamina, not by sprinters who fade in the homestretch.

It hasn’t been an easy sell for the former businessman who helped start countless companies that have become household names and employ tens of thousands of Americans. But in the end, he stayed focused on the No. 1 issue that will decide whether Barack Obama becomes a one-term president: a weak, slow-growth, jobless economy.

Mr. Santorum, however, doesn’t see the economy as the major, overriding issue of this election. In the past month, he has said the economy “is not the only issue” and that there are “other issues besides the economy,” seemingly dismissing its importance in the large scheme of things.

Reporters who regularly cover his campaign say he rarely talks about the economy and jobs, sticking to the religious and social issues that he feels most comfortable talking about to his socially conservative and evangelical base.

As if to reinforce how he seeks to separate himself from Mr. Romney’s laser-beam focus on the Obama economy, the former senator told voters this week, “I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn’t matter to me.”

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