Election 2012

Will the real GOP candidate please stand up?

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

Former Speaker of the House, and Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, greets supporters at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Anderson, South Carolina on Primary Day, Jan. 21, 2012

Let's see if we have this straight.

Heading into the Florida Republican presidential primary on Jan. 31, surging outsider Newt Gingrich was threatening to knock off Establishment front runner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. By channeling the anger of the Tea Party movement, Gingrich roared to victory in South Carolina in time to thwart the Romney coronation.

Clear enough. Except the "outsider" is a guy who has been around Washington for 30-plus years and was just two heartbeats away from the presidency during his service as Speaker of the House. And the "front runner" is a fellow who not long ago was having trouble keeping up with a refugee from the pizza-delivery industry. And Romney's earlier "victory" in Iowa was actually second place. And the "Establishment," well ...

"I don't know what the Republican establishment is," says Jeb Bush, a former GOP governor of Florida. "I haven't learned the secret handshake, and I don't know where to go for a membership card." That's Jeb B-U-S-H, as in Reagan-Bush, Bush-Quayle, Bush-Cheney; as in three generations that include a Republican Senator, a party chairman, governors and Presidents. Jeb's membership card was stapled to his birth certificate, so what's the point in his saying there is no Establishment unless this year there actually is no Establishment?

This race is making America's head spin.

After his eight-vote win in Iowa that was actually a 34-vote loss (or maybe not--the folks counting the votes finally gave up trying), Romney was locked in battle with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. That's when Gingrich, plummeting in the polls, burst back into the lead, thanks in part to a televised interview in which his second ex-wife said Gingrich once asked for an "open marriage." Romney, meanwhile, damaged his hopes of leading the low-tax party by revealing that he pays a low tax rate. He also scrambled to answer charges that he invested millions of dollars in American businesses.

The wild card in the race is Ron Paul of Texas, 76, on account of his strong appeal to the youth vote. Santorum is hanging in there too, in case something, um, unexpected happens.

How Newt Roared Back

Any attempt to make sense of the race at some point runs smack into the fact that the race doesn't make much sense. The Republican Party is still reeling from the explosions of 2006 and '08, which blew apart constituencies no longer happy together. The nation-building neoconservatives, eager to improve the world, clashed with the America-first conservatives; the pork-barreling K Streeters clashed with the genuine fiscal conservatives; the prim social conservatives clashed with the libertarians; the pro-immigrant crowd clashed with the border-sealing caucus; and so on. The impulse at party headquarters was to slap a Band-Aid emblazoned with Ronald Reagan's smiling face over the wounds, which might have worked for a while--until the whole economy collapsed.

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