McManus: Don't close the GOP show

We in the mainstream media harbor a dirty little secret: Most of us are rooting for Rick Santorum. It's nothing personal, although Santorum is a reasonably appealing guy. And it's not ideological; most of us aren't yearning for Bible-based social conservatism to become the law of the land. It's worse than that. We're just hoping to see the gaudy spectacle of this primary campaign continue as long as possible.

If Santorum can't win — and sober analysts, weighing the demographics of the remaining states, warn that his prospects are slim — there's still a chance for the contest to continue. The combination of Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul might still somehow block Mitt Romney, the once-again front-runner, from amassing the 1,144 delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first ballot. That's what I'm hoping for.

Why? Simple curiosity. The last open convention was in 1976, when Gerald R. Fordbeat Ronald Reagan; many of this year's campaign reporters weren't even born then. We media types all have our tickets for Tampa, and the prospect of covering a real live battle there fills us with delight.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

But the hopes of those of us in the Chaos Caucus are flagging. This week's Illinois primary made it appear ever more likely that Romney is heading toward a majority of delegates, and the only real question is how long it will take.

In Illinois, Romney won 47% of the votes and at least 41 of the 54 delegates, another step in his plodding but remorseless march toward a majority. Santorum, the last great hope of anti-Romney conservatives, was held to 35%. He didn't even win among Catholics; they went for the Mormon.

Maybe it's time for Santorum to bring back the sweater vest. Last month, after he began to look like a real contender, he switched to a blue blazer and necktie to appear more presidential. He slipped into the royal "we" more often, as in "We're the candidate that's got vision." It isn't working.

For a while, Santorum was emphasizing proposals to stimulate a revival of American manufacturing, an appealing pitch to blue-collar voters. But in recent weeks, he's shifted to a broader small-government message embodied in the one-word banner — "Freedom" — that unfurled behind him this week. That's an appeal to tea party voters, who make up a big chunk of the GOP electorate in Wisconsin and the other states he needs to win.

His problem is that he's not alone; Mitt Romney wants those tea party voters too. On Tuesday night in Illinois, Romney sounded like Ayn Rand. He boiled his campaign down to two words: "economic freedom."

It remains to be seen whether the tea party zeal of 2010 will still be there when the general election campaign begins in September. But if it's not, Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said Wednesday, no worries; they'll just roll out a new, improved general-election Romney.

"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes," Fehrnstrom told CNN. "It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

Gingrich didn't even show up in Illinois; he finished in last place, with only 8% of the vote. It's become clear that he isn't running for president anymore; he's dropped any pretense that he thinks he can win the nomination. Instead, he's running for kingmaker. He wants to control enough delegates to make a difference at the convention. The only problem with that strategy is that there don't seem to be many voters who share that lofty vision.

Meanwhile, though, Gingrich is enjoying himself on the campaign trail — still expounding on space exploration to ever-dwindling rallies but also making time for excursions to zoos, historic sites and good restaurants. (Last week it was New Orleans' venerable Galatoire's, followed by a meeting with an elephant at the Audubon Zoo.) Financial filings this week disclosed that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson sent an additional $5.5 million to Gingrich's "super PAC" in February, bringing the Adelson family total to $16 million and making it easier for the Gingrich juggernaut to keep rolling — whether voters want him or not.

Is Paul still running? He is, but he appears to have put his campaign on autopilot and retired to the stateroom for a nap. That makes his third-place showing in Illinois, a nose ahead of Gingrich, all the more impressive.

In fact, the end of the televised debates deprived both Gingrich and Paul of much of their oxygen. The horse race stories in the media, preoccupied with the grubby question of who might actually win, now focus almost entirely on the two-man contest between Romney and Santorum. In a sense, we've had two distinct primary campaigns: a chaotic phase with debates that lasted until Romney won the Michigan primary on Feb. 28, and a more stable contest without debates since then. I miss the debates — but then, I've already made my bias clear.

Still, for those of us who like chaos and spectacle in our politics, there's still a glimmer of hope on the northern horizon. Sarah Palin says that if the convention deadlocks, she's available.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

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