If you spend your time amongst politically-involved liberals these days, you've probably participated in a lot of head-shaking conversations, along the lines of, "Wow, is this Republican race awesome, or what?" It is, without doubt. And one of the things it has showed us is that, what political scientists call "candidate quality" is a more complicated factor than we usually think. And Mitt Romney turns out to be the most complicated candidate of all.
Ordinarily, we tend to believe that while some candidates are good at some things and some are good at others, and a candidate may have one particular strength but be lacking elsewhere (e.g. Newt Gingrich usually performs well in debates but sucks at most other parts of campaigning), the political world is basically divided into good candidates, mediocre candidates, and bad candidates. You can go pretty far being mediocre—for instance, Al Gore and Bob Dole never knocked anybody's socks off, but both rose almost to the apex of their chosen profession. And we have the complete train wrecks like Christine O'Donnell, who manage to screw up everything they try.
Then there are the great candidates, like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and even to a degree George W. Bush, who do almost everything well. They established effective organizations. They could go into a room and make voters' hearts melt. They raised huge amounts of money. They had an instinctive feel for how to connect with people and with the historical moment they found themselves in. While they made occasional mistakes on the trail like everyone does, they handled those mistakes deftly, either minimizing their impact or turning them to their advantage.
So what about Mitt Romney, who is still the most likely Republican nominee? At the outset of this race, you would have put him somewhere between good and great, even if no one considered him the most likeable of fellows. At planning and managing a campaign, he's aces—he spent years carefully allocating and deploying resources, sucking up to the right people all over the country, and setting up a campaign that could win over the long haul. He raised far more money than his opponents, making sure he had the means to outspend them when he needed it. He's smart, informed, and articulate, qualities that helped him easily outclass him opponents in most of the debates.
All true. Yet it's hard to escape the conclusion, given where we've come and were we are, that Mitt Romney is actually a terrible candidate. Awful. Dreadful. Appalling. Despite being in his fourth electoral campaign and having interacted with members of the homo sapien species for nearly 65 years, he still has trouble making any kind of human connection that isn't awkward and uncomfortable. Despite his reputation for discipline, he makes absurd gaffes all the time, constantly drawing attention to his greatest political weaknesses. Over the course of this race, he's fallen behind one nutball after another, from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich, and at least one polling firm says that he's about to fall behind Rick Santorum, quite possibly the most unpleasant politician in America, a guy who thinks the Crusades were a good idea.
Republicans have certainly spent a lot of time mulling over Romney's strengths and weaknesses—whether they can believe the new, more conservative version of him, whether his background in private equity could be a liability, whether Barack Obama will be able to exploit his (well-earned) reputation as a flip-flopper. But I'm not sure if they've grappled with the fact that the guy just really stinks at this running for president thing. At this point, though, they've just about run out of alternatives.