The Trump Primary

The new GOP debate: whether to embrace the reality TV-ization of the campaign

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Illustration by Mickey Duzyj for TIME

It has been clear for a while that the Republican primary campaign is a reality-TV show. The question has been, Which one? (Herman Cain's Cheaters? Rick Perry's Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?)

For much of the year, the political press has been covering it as The Bachelor. In the campaign's most overused media metaphor, pundits argued that the GOP electorate was "dating" one alternative after another--Michele Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Newt Gingrich--but would eventually tender its rose to the steady, if unexciting, Mitt Romney.

Never one to be ignored, Donald Trump--casino mogul, TV host and Obama-birth-certificate obsessive--is recasting the race as The Apprentice, with plans to moderate a debate in Iowa on Dec. 27, a week before the state's caucuses. The debate, sadly, will not be held in the boardroom following a challenge in which two teams of candidates have to invent and market a new Snapple flavor, but Trump says he will endorse a candidate--"You're hired!"--afterward.

New Republican poll leader Gingrich was the first to agree to the debate. (After mulling it for a few days, Romney passed. In this campaign, depressingly enough, that may qualify as the boldest political statement he's made.) Pundits left and right bemoaned Newt's choice: This is not the way a serious candidate proves his gravitas! Nope, it's not. But so far, this has been a race in which winning the respectable media's approval has not exactly been an asset.

For months, press coverage of the GOP race has focused on two front runners: the guy Republicans say they want to vote for and the guy (Romney) political handicappers insist Republicans will actually vote for instead. There are certainly good reasons to argue for Romney's inevitability. He has not run against a single strong contender but instead a kind of noncorporeal conservative spirit--"Not-Mitt"--which, like Bob from Twin Peaks or Lord Voldemort in the first Harry Potter novel, assumes one human host after another until their mortal husks prove too weak. Romney has the organization, the money, the endorsements and the hair. He is leading the primary race by every measure except how many people want him to be the President.

Everything seasoned political analysts know says that, even as the press has begun taking Gingrich seriously, voters will return home to Romney. (Thus, for instance, NBC's Chuck Todd now terms Romney the "favorite" though not the front runner.) But what if the thing driving this race is the rejection of ideas that seasoned political analysts believe in?

The subtext of the Romney-inevitability argument is that Republican voters will vote like Beltway insiders: They'll be pragmatic. They'll defer to authority. Above all, they'll choose based on "electability"--that dispassionate meta-judgment of which candidate people who are not you will vote for in a general election.

This is all possible. It's also possible that people will decide to vote for the candidate--divorces, scandals, child-labor brainstorms and all--who most passionately advocates what they believe, the human body best able to house the atavistic spirit of Not-Mitt.

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