ADVERTISEMENT

It's been a wild ride, but the story line of the Republican race remains remarkably simple and constant: It's Mitt Romney and the perishable pretenders. Five have come and gone, if you count The Donald's aborted proto-candidacy. And now the sixth and most plausibly presidential challenger just had his moment -- and blew it in Michigan.

It's no use arguing that Rick Santorum won nearly as many Michigan delegates as Romney. He lost the state. Wasn't Santorum claiming a great victory just three weeks ago when he shockingly swept Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado -- without a single convention delegate being selected?

It was a great victory. Delegate counts were beside the point. These three wins instantly propelled him to the front of the field nationally and to a double-digit lead in Romney's Michigan backyard.

Then Santorum went ahead and lost it. Rather than sticking to his considerable working-class, Reagan-Democrat appeal, he kept wandering back to his austere social conservatism. Rather than placing himself in "grandpa's hands," his moving tribute to his immigrant coal miner grandfather as representative of the America Santorum pledges to restore, he insisted on launching himself into culture-war thickets: Kennedy, college and contraception.

He averred that John Kennedy's 1960 Houston speech on separation of church and state makes him "throw up." Whatever the virtues of Santorum's expansive view of the role of religion, the insulting tone toward Kennedy who, living at a time of frank anti-Catholic bigotry, understandably offered a more attenuated view of religion in the public square, was jarring, intemperate and utterly unnecessary.

As was his sneering at President Obama's wanting to open college to all. Santorum called that snobbery and an attempt at liberal indoctrination. Sure, there's a point to be made about ideological imbalance in higher education and about the dignity of manual labor. But to do so by disdaining the most important instrument of social mobility -- one that millions of parents devoutly desire for their children -- is simply bizarre.

Finally, the less said about contraception the better, a lesson Santorum refused to learn. It's a settled question. The country has no real desire for cringe-inducing admonitions from politicians about libertinism and procreative (versus pleasurable) sex.

The result of these unforced errors was Santorum's Michigan slide. He forfeited a victory that would have shattered the Romney candidacy. The result should never have been close. Romney won by default.

It's not over. Super Tuesday could scramble the deck. But once again, the smoke clears and Romney remains -- slow, steady, unspectacular. In short, a weak front-runner in an even weaker field.

Hence the current Republican gloom, the growing Democratic cockiness. But the game is young. True, given the national mood and the state of the economy, Republicans should be far ahead. They've blown a significant lead. But the race is still 50-50.

Romney remains the presumptive nominee. His Michigan victory speech was jaunty, sharp and good. He'd advanced a serious plan for tax and entitlement reform four days earlier. Now he needs to (1) bite his tongue anytime the temptation arises to riff about class, money or cars (Cadillacs in particular), (2) ask George Bush 41 the proper way to eat pork rinds, (3) pray for yet more luck, the quality Napoleon famously valued in his generals above all others.