You could get the impression that next week will be a bye week for Mitt Romney from the way pundits are treating the upcoming Mississippi and Alabama primaries as a knockout round for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. It's do-or-die time for Gingrich, who needs to win at least one of those states to remain a credible candidate as Santorum supporters pressure him to quit and clarify the campaign. Ever since the social-conservative conclave endorsed Santorum over Gingrich, friends of the former have been trying to push the former Speaker out of the race. But Gingrich soldiers on, and while the Republican party is supposed to be dominated by a strident reactionary base, that base remains hopelessly divided against Romney, who has no challenger for his bloc of supporters.
Why does there seem to be an irreconcilable difference between the Gingrich and Santorum camps? How different are they, really, and how meaningful can the differences be to the ideological base to which both appeal? While the persistent split may raise conspiratorial questions about whether one or the other has cut a deal with Romney to divide his opposition, the simpler conclusion seems to be that ideology alone isn't enough for the alleged ideologues of the vaunted base. Maybe I miss some of the nuances because I'm not of the base, but I can't really see a dime's worth of difference between Gingrich and Santorum apart from the latter's more overt piety. As he's proven the stronger candidate of the two, the real question is why the Gingrich supporters stand by their man. I can see two possible reasons. One is Southern chauvinism, and the other is a personality cult driven by faith in Gingrich the visionary genius -- the notion that makes all other Republicans scoff or choke. Gingrich himself still hopes to convince the base that he is the most outre outsider of all, despite his past honors and positions, on the perverse ground that his failures to work well with others while Speaker prove his redeeming alienation from "Washington" and his fitness as a radical reformer. But many more people believed all that months ago, yet many of them have since sided with Santorum. Wasn't the base sending Gingrich a message? Of course, he has no obligation to listen, but if he believes that Romney can't beat Obama, and that Obama must be beaten, hasn't he an obligation to hasten Romney's defeat by yielding to the stronger conservative? Perhaps Gingrich and his people don't believe that Santorum is a conservative. If so, that might clarify things for the base. Their choice would be between a madman of the right and a pure-and-simple madman.