THE nation-touring carnival called the Republican race for president today heads toward its largest venue, a 10-state date six days from now with so-called Super Tuesday.
Expect shouts on the midway to be loud and long.
In its wake, this show of shows leaves behind yet another "critical" day with no real resolution as to who carries the party banner against President Obama in November.
Yes, the long-viewed-inevitable Mitt Romney managed a win in his home state of Michigan and won big in sunny Arizona.
With 85 percent of the Michigan vote counted, Romney was leading Rick Santorum, 41 percent to 38 percent.
But a month ago, the idea that Santorum would be anywhere close in Michigan was politically unthinkable.
"A month ago they didn't know who we are, but they do now," Santorum told a cheering crowd of supporters last night, even as the race was called for Romney.
In extended remarks that suggested he hadn't seen the evening's results, he said that Michigan voters "looked into their hearts," that he was grateful and that all he could say was "I love you back."
He went on, again sounding as if he'd won, telling his crowd, "We need a candidate who can go out and take on Barack Obama."
So, roiling, sometimes rabid Rick isn't going away. If anything, his Michigan showing means he heads into next week as the foremost anti-Mitt.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul remains Ron Paul. And Newt Gingrich looks south, especially to Georgia, in an effort to rise again.
I'd normally bet there's a better chance of Newt soon opening his lunar colony, but this election's teaching us all how dicey such bets can be.
Truth is, the current crop of anti-Obama barkers is at the mercy of anxious GOP voters, a delicate balance of angry tea-partyers, evangelicals who don't trust Mormons and true conservatives who don't trust Romney.
So, as a search for anyone able to strike that balance AND beat Obama, I don't yet see the search ending, and maybe not before the convention in Tampa set for the end of August.
I'm not alone.
"I don't see the end coming anytime soon," says George Washington University political-science professor Chris Arterton, "in part because Paul's staying through to Tampa and in part because Gingrich will hang through the Southern primaries.
"I think there is a possibility of a contested convention in which there's no first-ballot winner . . . [and] if there is a stalemate, delegates could turn to a savior."
Names often offered are Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels.
For now, however, all eyes turn to Tuesday's primaries and caucuses in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia - even though Super Tuesday isn't always decisive.
It was for Bob Dole in '96 and for George W. in '00. But it was not for John McCain in '08, and there's a good chance it won't be this year.
A sweep seems highly unlikely.
Romney, for example, should take Massachusetts and Vermont. But Gingrich is leading in Georgia, which he represented in Congress for 20 years. And Santorum leads in Ohio and, for the moment - bad news for Newt - also in Tennessee.
Other delegate-rich states include Virginia (where Newt and Santorum are not on the ballot) and Oklahoma, where Santorum holds an edge.
Super Tuesday offers nearly 40 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination. But it looks at this point like those delegates get spread around, forcing the race into other March contests in states such as Alabama, Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi.
So the carnival continues; time for candidates to climb back on the merry-go-round, the scrambler, the mixer and the ever-popular wild mouse.
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