OK, everyone who, back in May, had Herman Cain clinging to a lead in the polls and Newt Gingrich surging into a three-man GOP primary race in mid-November, raise your hands.
Looking … looking … looking … yeah, that’s what I thought. Join the club.
So far, the most reliable quality to the contest to become the Republican opponent for President Barack Obama next year has been its unpredictability.
Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels did not run. Rick Santorum, last seen losing his bid for re-election to the Senate, and Jon Huntsman, who worked for Obama before seeking to replace him, did.
Yet both of them, along with Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer, made it onto Georgia’s presidential primary ballot — while Tim Pawlenty, at one point endorsed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue, did not.
To say it’s been a volatile race is to say Atlanta gets warm in the summertime.
Since Cain entered it May 21, 10 days after Gingrich officially declared, six different candidates have ranked second in the Real Clear Politics average of major national polls (this and the figures that follow do not include data for Pawlenty, who dropped out Aug. 14).
Guess who’s spent the most time in second, with 63 days: Mitt Romney, the supposedly inevitable GOP nominee. Of course, Romney has also spent more days since then in first place, 112, than the other two front-runners, Cain and Rick Perry, combined.
On the other hand, both Cain and Perry have higher peaks in that average of the polls than does Romney, who still hasn’t touched 26 percent.
On the other-other hand, Romney’s the only one of the six contenders not to spend any of that time in fifth place or lower on average. Second is the lowest he’s fallen.
So far. In this race, you can’t forget to say, “so far.”
But the volatility does not yet signal that the Republicans are handing the race to Obama.
It’s clear that GOP voters feel they have a real chance to unseat the president. But their lack of decisiveness about Romney — so far — reflects both nervousness and confidence.
Nervousness, because Romney is the “safe” choice as far as persuading independent voters to turn against the president they helped elect in 2008. They’re keeping him near the top.
Confidence, because they also think there’s reason to believe even a more — how to put it? — ideologically consistent candidate could beat the rigidly liberal Obama. A less confident GOP would have thrown itself into Romney’s arms by now.
It still might do so. In the meantime, there’s a chance one of the candidates with Georgia connections could land in the top or second slot on the Republican ticket in 2012.
Gingrich is running a campaign described by national pundits as “substantive,” “wonkish” and “unconventional.” That last adjective also applies to Cain’s bid, which rose above most people’s expectations thanks to his status as a political outsider and, of course, his popular 9-9-9 plan to replace the federal tax code.
Gingrich must overcome his well-known baggage. Cain must squash past allegations of sexual harassment and, more important, show he has answers besides 9-9-9: In Wednesday’s debate, he went to that well a few times too many.
Gingrich is rising even though everyone has long known about his problems. Cain is stalling because his are still fresh. But in this race, there’s no reason to dismiss either of their candidacies.
– By Kyle Wingfield