The GOP race has now descended into total chaos. Mike Huckabee, John McCain and now Mitt Romney have each won an important primary or caucus and lost two others. Onetime front-runner Rudy Giuliani finished dead last in Michigan last night, falling below the somnambulant Fred Thompson and the flakey Ron Paul.
The scatter-shot outcome reflects deeper divisions among the GOP's three wings: Economic conservatives are moving to Romney; social righties rallying 'round Huckabee - and the national-security types who started for Rudy have migrated to McCain in the voting so far.
The various factions are growing ever more alienated from each other, demanding a level of purity from their candidates that makes consensus and unity less and less possible. Those concerned over immigration don't forgive McCain his support for the McCain-Kennedy bill; pro-lifers criticize Romney's inconsistency over their issue. Moralists worry about Rudy's marriages; tax-cut purists won't forgive Huckabee's mixed record on taxes in Arkansas.
This is no way to select a nominee who can win.
The Republican Party is simply not used to selecting a nominee without having it imposed from above. In near-monarchic fashion, the party has always had an anointed front-runner in every election since 1944 - Tom Dewey begat Ike who begat Dick Nixon who begat Gerald Ford; Ronald Reagan challenged Ford, and then it was his turn. He begat the first George Bush - who literally begat the current president.
The designated candidate won the nomination in each one of those years but 1964 - and that year, the party met disaster.
But President Bush has been unique in refusing to help his party choose a successor. The result is the fissure now is tearing the party apart.
The winnowing-down process that's worked so well in the Democratic Party has failed totally in the GOP contest. With each candidate finding adequate momentum in the results so far, the party faces the prospect of a deadlock with each of the four main candidates (McCain, Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani) winning a share of the vote but nobody winning a majority on Super Tuesday.
Can South Carolina or Nevada winnow down the field? Unlikely. Neither is significant enough, and each is so totally atypical of the rest of the nation that its results won't have great national credibility.
Florida is probably the last time that the GOP can avoid a destructive fracturing. Its pivotal vote, the week before Super Tuesday, may offer the best chance to focus the field and allow somebody to win a majority. But the state is now a four-way tie, with vote shares ranging from 17 percent to 21 percent.
Unless Republicans are willing to show some flexibility in their insistence on purity from each of their candidates, the splitting that is increasingly evident will tear the party apart even as it faces the most serious challenge from the Democrats in years.
The Democratic debate last night was a demonstration of Barack Obama's limited ability to project issues. He managed to sit through a debate over bankruptcy without citing Hillary Clinton's massive campaign contributions from banks and lenders.
In a series of exchanges on subprime mortgages, he didn't mention her contributions from precisely the companies that pushed these flawed lending instruments. He even failed to mention the $10 million the Clinton library got from the Saudi monarchy even when asked about American banks going to that family for capital infusions.
We need less rancor among Republicans and sharper issue distinctions among the Democrats.