In the Arena

The Unbelievable Republican Race

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There is a CBS poll out today that has Herman Cain topping the field at 18%, with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at 15%…all of whom are dwarfed by the 31% who are either undecided or want another candidate. Does this mean anything? I’ve got mixed feelings…

It Doesn’t Mean Much: We’re less than two months away from the Iowa caucuses, we’ve had a run of intense Republican presidential debates, but still–this is a national poll and, the truth is, most civilians, even most Republican stalwarts, are just beginning to tune in. The most reliable number here is the 31% who are undecided or unthrilled. Add to that Cain’s 18%–I see it as a temporary protest parking place for Republican activists–and you have an entirely fluid field. Four years ago, John McCain’s poll standings were just beginning to creep into the Romney/Gingrich range…and Mike Huckabee, the ultimate Iowa winner, was still a Who Dat? And yet…

It May Mean Something: There are three messages being delivered in this poll. The first is about Mitt Romney, who has performed as well in these debates as I’ve ever seen a candidate perform–and who clearly is the Republicans’ most plausible President–but he still can’t seem to impress the faithful. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that the 31% will drift his way as nut-cutting time approaches, but this has to be a matter of real concern in the Romney camp: what does he have to do to close the deal? Is it possible that he’s just too moderate for this extremist party?

The second message is inherent in the 18% Cain vote. Pizza man continues to lead the field despite his weasely and entirely unconvincing response to the sexual harassment charges (and, more important, the comprehensive lack of knowledge he’s shown in the debates). His strength relates directly to Romney’s weakness: Cain is the Limbaugh cult candidate, the first choice of Republican nihilists, the screw-the-media candidate. I can’t imagine that he’ll be the nominee, or get anything but weaker as the process moves on, but who knows?

The third message: Gingrich may be this year’s McCain. His campaign disintegrated last Spring, as McCain’s did four years ago. But he’s a smart guy who understands the trajectory, and incredible length, of presidential races–and, through strong debate performances, has slowly built himself a following. My assumption, not unusual among those who’ve known Newt for the past few decades, is that at some point he will blow himself up. He tends to do that. He’s an angry guy, and an imperious one–that doesn’t work too well in presidential politics. Then again, the Republicans are a pretty angry party right now. Gingrich hasn’t faced the scrutiny yet that Romney, Perry and Cain have had to endure–if he continues to rise, that’s surely coming.

Update and Caveat: The margin of error in this poll is 5%, which means the actual strength of the top three could be Gingrich 17, Cain 15 and Romney 13…or any other combination of the three in a 5% range. All the more reason not to take the results too literally. The trajectories or, in Romney’s case, non-trajectory, is what matters.