“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” So said Sherlock Holmes and he might have been talking about the 2012 race for the Republican party's presidential nomination. The impossible candidates have been weeded out and the only one who remains in play is Mitt Romney. He must, ergo, be the winner and nominee. This is not just because he won the Iowa caucuses but because of how he did so and, importantly, the identity of the other candidates who "got a ticket out of Iowa".
This is tedious for the media who desperately need new stories to keep the game running for as long as is possible. Watch out for a slew of these "game-changing" theories, positing a Romney collapse or defeat somewhere and a sudden, surprise, resurgence for Jon Huntsman or Rick Perry. (These being the only remaining candidates who, despite campaign records of uninterrupted failure are the only remaining even semi-credible opponents). I assure you this: anyone who tries to persuade you that Rick Santorum or Ron Paul will be the nominee is either filling space or treating you for a fool (and most probably both).
Does it matter that Romney won by just eight votes? Not really. Does it matter that he polled worse in Iowa this time than he did in 2012? Not at all. He won. And he won despite not paying very much attention to Iowa. Sure, some people will try and tell you that if he fails to win a majority of the votes cast in New Hampshire Romney's "momentum" will be so checked someone else will have a chance but, really, this too will be weapons-grade balderdash.
I dare say Romney may lose somewhere, but he won't lose where it most matters. Alea iacta est and all that. If you want someone to blame for this mess blame Mitch Daniels' wife or, if you must, Tim Pawlenty who must surely regret withdrawing from the field before he had a real chance to become the alternative to Romney. Nevertheless, Romney saw off Daniels and Pawlenty and Palin and Barbour and Christie and all the others who ran-without-properly-running and he will see off the remaining so-called contenders too.
You can see it happening: look at John McCain's endorsement as a useful weather-vane. It is no secret that Romney and McCain are not what you'd call bosom chums but McCain's decision to back Romney is an acceptance of reality and a declaration it would be best if the race be over as quickly and cleanly as possible.
To repeat: Romney would have remained the favourite even if he had finished third in Iowa. But he won. There is little real room for an anti-Mitt to make much headway, especially when New Hampshire is close to banker status for the former governor of Massachusetts. He has money, organisation and staying power. None of the rest, except Paul, can say that.
And the Cult of Paul, whatever the good doctor's other qualities, is not going to make a material difference to the process. He's not going to prevent Romney from winning a majority of delegates. Nor is Santorum, a man whose last electoral foray involved lsing Pennsylvania by 18 points, going to persuade Middle American Republicans that he is the man who can beat Barack Obama.
There are two types of primary voters: the principled and the pragmatic. Santorum and Paul appeal to True Believers, Romney to the pragmatists. The pragmatists may not always enjoy a majority but they still tend to be the largest plurality within the conservative coalition. Santorum - a man whose brand of religiosly-defined politics makes Michelle Bachman seem a Minnesotan Richard Dawkins - is not the man to win a general election (and that's before you even consider his belief that gay marriage must lead to the widespread acceptance of "man on dog action").
In one sense this is a shame since, whatever else one may think of him, Santorum has been the only GOP candidate to make a real issue of the struggles of working and lower-middle class Americans. For that he merits credit. Nevertheless, his shortcomings are such that he cannot fare well in future primaries. Iowa's caucuses have rewarded the likes of Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee in the past. Santorum's "surge" has been striking but the folks who supported him in the corn fields are not the kinds of people with enviable track records when it comes to picking winners and losers.
None of this means Romney is an accomplished candidate (though he is manifestly more accomplished than he was in 2008) but he has taken his lumps so far and emerged reasonably unscathed. The party might, collectively, be keen to discover a credible anti-Romney (as many Democrats sought an anti-Hillary candidate four years ago) but they have not been able to find one. That is, they've not been able to find one upon whose merits they can all agree. Romney's opponents are divided and leaderless.
So it will be Romney. He is not the perfect candidate but since he's not running against God he may be forgiven that. Obama's vulnerability is Romney's greatest asset. The subliminal message of his campaign has been: Steady on folks, this is neither 1964 nor 1972. Can Mitt win in November? Well, I'd still make Obama favourite but ask this instead: which of Romney's rivals would do better than Mitt in a general election? Quite. Which is why, because they are not fools, this campaign is almost over.
Perhaps Romney will have a meltdown but his campaign has been slick, professional and isciplined thus far. Perhaps there will be a move to reignite Perry's campaign and make it what it might or could have been had it been planned properly and blessed with a candidate who took more interest in becoming President. But absent that there's every prospect the campaign will be finished by Super Tuesday.
This is a shame for the press and for political enthusiasts but, hey, we'll always have the most absurdly entertaining pre-primary campaign to remember, right? In years to come we'll remember Cain and Bachmann and Gingrich and all the other members of this Carnival of the Grotesque with some fondness. When shall we see their like again?