Iowa Republicans are just days away from kicking off the presidential nominating contest, and Republicans ought to hope the primary ends sooner rather than later.
The GOP's ultimate goal, of course, is to make Barack Obama a one-term president, but as 2011 draws to a close there are signs the volatile primary has done more to damage the party for the general election than help it.
The year has been defined largely by the lack of enthusiasm most Republicans have for frontrunner Mitt Romney and serious shortcomings in other leading candidates to replace the president. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have all surged to the top only to be dragged down by doubts about their fitness for the nomination.
"At least we'll know who we're electing. It's good to get everything on the table. I truly believe the man that will be left standing at the end will be the best,'' said Rose Rauschkolb, a Republican activist and retired real estate broker in Miramar.
Rauschkolb supported Cain in Florida's Presidency 5 mock election in September, but remains undecided at this point: "There's something about every one of these candidates I don't like, but we've got to get rid of what's in there now. I don't care if Mickey Mouse runs, he would be better."
No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been re-elected with the unemployment rate close to as high as it is now (8.6 percent), so Obama's vulnerability is not in question.
But the perception of Obama's alternative (only 20 percent of Americans approve of the performance of congressional Republicans) is strengthening Obama's position. His approval rating has ticked up from an average of 43 percent at the start of December to 47 percent today, according to RealClearPolitics. He now leads Romney by about 3 percentage points, after trailing him in October.
Competitive primaries can help parties organize early, energize supporters and highlight a party's message. They tend to move candidates closer to the activist base on the left or right, before the eventual nominee tacks to the center for the general election.
This primary, however, has been notable for how tea party influence pulled the GOP field further away from moderate swing voters who ultimately decide presidential elections. Among such unpopular positions for the general election: insisting millions of undocumented, mostly Hispanic immigrants be sent packing, scoffing at global warming and ruling out even one tax increase for nine spending cuts.
"Gone are the days when a smiling Reagan could be forgiven for raising taxes and ignoring abortion once in office. As the Republican base has become ever more detached from the mainstream, its list of unconditional demands has become ever more stringent," lamented the Economist in an editorial this week.
Republican consultant Carlos Curbelo of Miami said the nominee should have plenty of time to pivot into general election posture, but the primary campaign has done little to help broaden the party's appeal.
"The Republican candidates are speaking to a very, very small audience right now that is going to vote for the ticket in November anyway," Curbelo said. "Certainly with regard to Hispanic voters all these debates and the primary process in general has been, if anything, harmful to Republicans."
The GOP primary has featured more televised debates than ever, which has helped give the candidates exposure but has also produced endless cable TV clips of bickering and clumsy comments. Republican strategist Karl Rove noted they can take their toll.
"Debates have nearly crippled campaigns, chewing into the precious time each candidate has to organize, raise money, set themes, roll out policy and campaign," Rove wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.
The debates merely underscore the real difficulty for Republicans, said Republican consultant Chris Ingram.
"Just the quality of candidates is what really is the problem this year,'' said Ingram, noting that top-tier candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie opted not to run.
The good news for Republicans is that it looks increasingly likely that the nomination will be wrapped up relatively quickly, rather than be a marathon contest through next spring. Time/CNN polls of Iowa and New Hampshire released Wednesday showed Romney leading in Iowa and far ahead in New Hampshire. If Romney wins those Jan. 3 and Jan. 10 elections back to back, he will be well positioned to effectively clinch the nomination when Florida votes Jan. 31.
"After the Florida primary, things will wrap up pretty quickly I think," said Florida Republican Party chairman Lenny Curry, who is not a bit worried about the primary process hurting the GOP this cycle.
"The volatility that we're seeing with these candidates says to me the base has been paying attention for months and they're energized. My message to Republicans supporting other candidates will be, 'Whatever you do to grieve, let's get it done within 24 hours after we have a nominee, and then let's move on to win the general.' "
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.