As the cliché has it, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. That ancient maxim certainly applies to conservative columnist George Will, who, despite having been wrong about nearly everything else, has been dead accurate in his assessment of the Republican presidential field. Earlier this week he concluded a characteristically orotund analysis with the blunt observation that "neither [Mitt] Romney nor [Rick] Santorum looks like a formidable candidate for November." What sane onlooker could possibly disagree?
As Wednesday night's heated Arizona candidates' debate demonstrated, the Republican contest has devolved into a hissy fit between Romney and Santorum over which is the loonier appeaser of hard-right social conservatives. Instead of the robust debate over economic policy that the country deserves, the contenders are refighting the culture wars over issues that were settled more than a generation ago.
In the process, they've become totally unhinged from reality. They've dreamed up a war on religion that Barack Obama is supposedly waging. They've managed to make access to contraception, which is about as American as apple pie, a subject of controversy. Santorum, who believes that "Satan is attacking the great institutions of America," has suggested that neither states nor the federal government should have a role in education.
He spun out even more deeply into outer space on Friday by suggesting that Obama's real motive for encouraging more young people to go to college is not to equip them to compete in a rapidly evolving job market but something far more sinister: to indoctrinate them into a secular worldview.
I swear I am not making this up. Here's the story from CBS News: "In an hourlong interview with conservative television host Glenn Beck … Santorum said, 'I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.' "
Well, this, like much of what Santorum decrees, is just plain nuts. It's the kind of nonsense that people should feel free to spout around the kitchen table or at the rail of the neighborhood tavern. But to make it an integral part of a presidential campaign is flat out crazy.
So, in what looks an awful lot like the political version of the century-ago search for a "Great White Hope" to knock Jack Johnson out of the heavyweight-boxing championship, they are wishing, hoping, praying and dreaming that some new candidate will materialize to take the fight to Obama.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent of Republicans wish that somebody else were running. Some of them are starting to delude themselves into thinking that a stronger contender will either leap into the remaining primaries or emerge at a brokered convention.
Sadly for frustrated Republicans, both options are probably wishful thinking. They may long for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to leap into the late primaries, but neither has shown the slightest inclination to do so.
Even if a new hopeful were to emerge, there is precious little time to put together a credible campaign. The filing deadlines for candidates have already passed in all but 12 states. Even if someone were to win every single one of the 519 delegates at stake in those contests, he or she would still be far short of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination.
As for a brokered convention, at which cigar-chomping party bosses would put together a backroom deal for a new nominee, the odds are even less likely. For one thing, as GOP sage Karl Rove contended in the Wall Street Journal, "a brokered convention needs party bosses, and today there aren't any." As entertaining as a brokered convention might prove to be, it ain't gonna happen.
But as Rove points out, there's still a slim chance for a contested convention, at which none of the candidates arrives with enough delegates to secure the nomination. The strongest rivals would battle it out, and after all sorts of horse trading and deal making, one would emerge as the winner. That's what happened in 1976, when neither the incumbent, Gerald Ford, nor the challenger, Ronald Reagan, was able to lock up the nomination during the primary process. Ford got the nod when previously unpledged delegates from Missouri gave him their support.
That won't happen in 2012 if either Romney or Santorum can cobble together enough delegates, which is all the more likely as the battle increasingly breaks down into a two-man contest. Rove is almost certainly right when he predicts that the eventual nominee will be picked from the existing field. But he is kidding himself when he argues that "whoever emerges is likely to be stronger for having gone through this grueling process." A stopped clock may be right twice a day, but the rest of the time it's wrong.
Jack White, a frequent contributor to The Root, is a longtime observer of national politics.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.