As volatile as the Republican presidential race has proven to be, it’s fascinating how even as the names of the frontrunners keep changing, one theme seems to keep recurring: the desire for a GOP savior to swoop in from the wings and save the party from the undesirable choices facing it. That hope kept speculation brewing about the possibility of Paul Ryan or Chris Christie running all summer until the players in that fantasy league were forced to cash out. But even with voting in Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks away, the rumors are flying again. Bill Kristol claims today in the Weekly Standard that there remains a “Valentine’s Day Option” available for Republicans in which Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio will take advantage of both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney stumbling in the January races and somehow run the table as one snatches away the nomination from the candidates who have spent the last year running hard.
Kristol cites the research of Larry Sabato, who says the long, drawn-out primary calendar and the fact that states will be allocating their votes proportionately rather than in a winner-take-all fashion means it’s not impossible for some dark horse to win. But the wish here appears to be the father of the thought. With the polls showing Newt Gingrich vaulting to a huge lead in the polls, many Republicans are understandably dubious about their prospects in the fall with him as their standard-bearer. They are grasping onto any scenario, no matter how unlikely, that provides an alternative to Newt. But as unpalatable as the choices before them may be, the odds against a new candidate succeeding are still formidable.
Let’s address the first problem for this fantasy scenario, the identity of the mystery candidates who will step in at this late date. It’s fair to ask why if Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio or Mr. or Ms. Unknown chose not to run back in the summer when they could have entered every primary (the filing dates for many states has already passed), they would do so now? Let’s just say if they had really wanted to run, they already would have.
Second, despite the delegate math that Sabato ably analyzes, the result of a January standoff between Romney and Gingrich is far more likely to produce a prolonged battle between the two than to prompt an as-yet-unnamed challenger to step forward. Moreover, a scenario in which both Gingrich and Romney “fall flat” in January seems to me to be totally far-fetched. That would require one of the other candidates currently in the race to somehow knock one or both of the current frontrunners off in Iowa or New Hampshire, a possibility that is hard to imagine at the moment.
It is true the schedule was created in order to avoid a situation where a few early wins effectively clinches the nomination before most of the country has voted, as was the case when John McCain won the GOP nomination in 2008. But the notion of someone parachuting in, as Kristol says, by Valentine’s Day and then sweeping to victory on Super Tuesday in March seems a stretch even in a race that has been characterized by drastic shifts in support among the candidates.
Republicans are not wrong to worry about Gingrich’s general election prospects. Though he’s currently riding high, he is a perfect target for Democrats’ attacks and could implode at any moment between now and next November. But like it or not, the Republican presidential nominee will be one of the candidates already running. As crazy and unpredictable as this race has been, the idea of a Valentine’s Day surprise says more about the unfulfilled hopes of GOP activists for a better candidate with which to oppose President Obama than it does about the actual chances of another Republican getting into the race.