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Do Gingrich, Santorum know how to lose?

Gloria Borger: The use of Etch A Sketch toys as props by GOP candidates like Rick Santorum is a sign the race is getting silly.

Story highlights

  • Borger: GOP candidates are wandering campaign trail with Etch A Sketch toys
  • She says neither Gingrich nor Santorum can win, so why continue?
  • In 2008, Romney knew to get out after "he saw the handwriting on the wall," she says
  • Borger: Santorum, Gingrich can prolong the race, but would they be blamed for a GOP loss?

So we're at a point in the campaign where health care reform is about to go on trial at the Supreme Court, unemployment remains high and gas prices are skyrocketing.

As for the GOP presidential wannabes, they're arguing over, um, an Etch A Sketch metaphor bungled by a Mitt Romney staffer. ("You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again," Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN this week.)

Sure, the metaphor has a perfection all its own, given Romney's penchant for redrawing policy lines. It's just low-hanging fruit, hard to pass up. But the picture of two "serious" presidential candidates wandering the trail with an old-school toy as a prop can lead to only one conclusion: This is getting silly.

The intellectual arguments have been made. The differences have been debated. And the voters are speaking. Sure, they're conflicted: hard-line conservatives and evangelicals will never love Romney. But Romney has what appears to be an insurmountable delegate lead. He will not sprint across the finish line, to be sure. He will crawl across it. But he will get there nonetheless.

Gloria Borger

If this were another time, the establishment power brokers would step in with a vision. They would take the candidates aside, give them the big-picture analysis from 30,000 feet and say: "Unite for the sake of the party." Then they would take to the airwaves and offer their full-throated endorsements, turning their attention to seeking the defeat of President Obama.  

Not happening. Consider this: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorses Romney, but there's no rally, huge photo op or choreographed endorsement tour. One prominent tea party group says, well, I suppose we can live with Romney if that's what we have to do. And tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, stops short of endorsing Romney but grudgingly allows that "I think we all need to look at this presidential primary and encourage the candidates to do a little self-reflection here -- what's good for our country."

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    The moves toward Romney have all of the enthusiasm and passion of an arranged marriage.

    So what can be done? Answer: Not much. The next moves are up to the candidates.

    First of all, the old-time power brokers don't have much to offer anymore. The political power within the GOP has moved away from any organized structure toward two force fields: the populist guy in the street and the rich guys who can write multimillion-dollar checks.

    The super PAC sugar daddies -- simply by virtue of their money -- are the reason the campaigns continue. What's the incentive for Newt Gingrich to get out as long as Sheldon Adelson, from his perch in Vegas, is willing to keep paying for his political ads? The same goes for Foster Friess, Santorum's man, who gets to dabble in politics from his mountain views in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I bet these fellows haven't had this much fun in years.

    Meantime, the newly populist GOP grass roots won't be told what to do anyway. Party organizations can't deliver them anymore, and Romney isn't exactly the guy they were wishing for when the tea party came on the scene in 2010. The establishment is in disrepute as far as they're concerned; those are the people who bungled the economy. "People feel they can make this decision on their own," Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who hasn't yet endorsed, tells me. "There's just a lot less party loyalty. ... We are in a period where people are searching."

    At some point, though, the search has to end. The money men could get tired of writing checks for fewer and fewer delegates. The math may become overpowering. At some point, the voters will get restless.

    Yet the final decisions will have to come from the men running. Granted, Gingrich and Santorum don't like Romney much -- and the longer they run against him, the less they like him. And often with good reason.

    But here's the final consideration: "You don't want the blame for losing," Cole says. "It's one thing to fight the good fight. ... But look at Romney in 2008. He knew when to get out."

    Yes he did. Romney knew how to end it the right way in 2008. After Super Tuesday, he saw the handwriting on the wall and embraced John McCain. And there's a lesson in that: Parties reward the winners, sure. But voters like good losers, too. Knowing how to lose is the hardest part of running.

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