As a result, the anti-Romney core of the GOP has allowed itself to be courted by a variety of suitors. Like a wave that ripples through a stadium, this group has flirted with different candidates. However, once the media follow suit, the candidates have withered under the subsequent scrutiny.
Michele Bachmann caught the wave in August after winning the Ames straw poll. The triumph, however, wasn't enough to overcome a series of embarrassing gaffes. She famously mixed up Concord, N.H., with Concord, Mass. She said John Wayne was born in Waterloo, Iowa, when it was really the birthplace of John Wayne Gacy. She extended birthday greetings to Elvis on the anniversary of his death. Claims that her husband's clinic has "prayed away the gay" didn't help. No one of these was a knockout blow, but collectively they fostered a view that she was ill-equipped. And so the wave shifted.
The next candidate to hang 10 was Rick Perry. He entered the race amid great conservative expectations, only to see them fade with his less-than-stellar debate performances. Sadly for Perry, he etched a spot on the debate highlight reel when he said he would eliminate three federal departments but could name only two. Alongside the clips of Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy" and CNN's Bernard Shaw asking Michael Dukakis what he'd do if his wife was raped, we will forever watch Perry say: "The third agency of government I would do away with . . . the Education, the Commerce. And let's see . . . the third one, I can't, sorry . . . oops."
The tide shifted again, and it was time for Herman Cain to boogey. But with the new scrutiny of the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza came revelations of complaints of sexual harassment. And under the glare, he, too, displayed his frailties. A routine question about Libya from a newspaper editorial board went viral when Cain struggled ("I gotta go back to . . . got all this stuff twirling around in my head"). Last week, he was left wondering, "How do you say delicious in Cuban?"
After Bachmann, Perry, and Cain crashed in the surf, the new wave runner was Newt Gingrich. Once written off for infidelity and his current wife's penchant for charging jewelry at Tiffany's, Gingrich was front and center in the most recent debate long enough to defend a $300,000 payment from conservative scourge Freddie Mac (which was reportedly actually part of $1.6 million to $1.8 million worth of work), which he defended as payment for his having acted as a "historian." The whitecaps of the Gingrich surge are already evident.
All the while Ron Paul has been respectable, but static, showing no prospect of expanding his hard-core base.
So now what?
There are three possibilities: First, the previously discontented finally settle on Romney, which seems unlikely, at least for now. Second, Rick Santorum finally gets on his surfboard for what would surely be a short ride. Third, the wave could shift to Jon Huntsman.
But where Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich have provided continuous fodder for SNL, to those who make up the GOP wave, Huntsman has been a veritable laugh track.
From the moment he announced his candidacy, he's provided one reason after another for the fringe faithful to ignore him.
On June 21, Huntsman actually said: "I respect the president of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love."
Respect the president? Obama loves this country? That's heresy. In a September debate, Huntsman stumbled over science:
"Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science."
Just last week he messed up an answer on torture. "We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights, and open markets, when we torture," Huntsman said.
In the same South Carolina debate, Huntsman offered this knee-slapper:
"I take a different approach on Afghanistan. I think it's time to come home. I say this nation has achieved its key objectives in Afghanistan: We had free elections in 2004, we uprooted the Taliban, we have dismantled al-Qaeda, and we killed Osama bin Laden."
Forget that he's pro-life, an ardent defender of the Second Amendment, and actually practiced fiscal conservatism while governor of Utah (as opposed to just talking a good game).
To the migrating GOP voters, he's been gaffes galore. No doubt the one laughing the hardest is President Obama.
Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.