The clown show is just about over.
There may be some entertaining high jinks ahead from Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum before they make their final exit from the political theater of the absurd otherwise known as the Republican presidential primary, but the prize has already been won.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — of granite jaw, flexible conviction and a self-proclaimed fondness for the ability to fire people — will be the GOP's standard-bearer. He may wrap it up with a decisive win in next week's South Carolina primary, where he faces a divided field of opponents contending for the state's evangelical base, or in a longer slog through Super Tuesday on March 6. But in the end he will triumph because none of his rivals can win.
And though it is easy enough to discern the general outline of the monumental struggle that will be fought between Romney and the newly truculent incumbent President Barack Obama during the general-election campaign, no one can confidently predict its outcome. It's just that close.
Despite its descent into right-wing lunatic pandering, the Republican-primary process is working as it is supposed to, producing the strongest-possible candidate from a field of extremist losers. Moreover, it seems likely that Romney will be crowned soon enough to start working his way toward the political center, where the moderate and independent voters who will decide the battle can be found.
If he can make that move, select a plausible vice presidential running mate (i.e., no Sarah Palins) and avoid tone-deaf exclamations from the credo of callous capitalism, Romney will be a formidable challenger.
You saw that in Romney's victory speech after the New Hampshire primary — a well-crafted address that he read from a teleprompter (a not insignificant factor for Tea Party members who rail at Obama for using one). He targeted Obama's greatest vulnerability, the limping economy, which more than any other issue will determine who finishes first in November. The president, Romney declared, has run out of ideas and excuses and is now running out of time.
Make no mistake — Romney is a ruthless competitor who will say whatever he has to. Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supports him, is ready and willing to drown opponents under a sea of negative ads, as it did to Gingrich in Iowa. The GOP base's lukewarm attitude toward Romney will warm considerably once it becomes clear that he is their one and only hope of unseating the hated Obama.
Sure, he can be attacked as a "vulture" who profited from demolishing companies and destroying jobs during his tenure at Bain Capital, as Rick Perry and Gingrich contend in language that mirrors the rhetoric of liberal reformers. But for many Republicans, what Romney did at the private-equity firm is the essence of free market capitalism and entirely commendable.
As for his well-documented history of flip-flops, who in politics doesn't flip-flop? Obama has made more than a few head-snapping course corrections of his own, on issues ranging from keeping the Guantánamo detention camp open to trying terror suspects in military tribunals instead of civilian courts. Here's a link to a list.
Up to now, the media's focus on the Republican silly season has obscured the weaknesses in Obama's bid for a second term. As Charles Pierce, who has become one of the most insightful analysts of this year's campaign, wrote in Esquire's political blog a few days ago, "If you spend a lot of time around the current Republican field of candidates, you tend to forget that Barack Obama has a long, hard pull up a dirt road to get re-elected."
Pierce cites the flat, sour mood of the country, the widespread feeling that the financial high rollers who brought on the economic crisis got away clean and the ambivalence of some of the president's once-fervid supporters as major obstacles to a second Obama term.
But as James Carville famously observed, in the end it's the economy, stupid. The stubbornly high unemployment rate — which, despite some recent improvements, is still at 8.5 percent — is what stands in Obama's way.
It's going to come down to whether voters believe that an ex-swashbuckling venture capitalist like Romney can do a better job than Obama of putting the country back to work. History suggests that if, by Election Day, voters believe that their lot is improving, Obama will win. If not, he will lose. Let the battle begin.
Jack White keeps an eye on right-wing politics for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.