Washington - Republicans haven't quite thrown away what they see as a winnable presidential election, at least not yet. But they're trying their best.
In GOP circles, there is more than a whiff of panic in the air. Unemployment is still painfully high, Americans remain dissatisfied with the country's direction, even the most favorable polls show President Obama's approval at barely 50 percent -- and yet there is a sense that the Republicans' odds of winning back the White House grow longer day by day.
Mitt Romney, whose main selling point is his supposed ability to beat Obama in November, has shown himself incapable of putting away a couple of -- let's face it -- political has-beens whose glory days were in the previous century.
Romney was crushed by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, which has a history of picking the Republican nominee -- perhaps because the party's most loyal voters, as well as its heart and soul, reside in the South. Romney was beaten by Rick Santorum, of all people, in the heartland states of Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri, as well as in Colorado, a key swing state.
And, according to the polls, Romney is in grave danger of losing to Santorum next week in Michigan, the state where Romney was born and raised. If this were to occur, Santorum's tentative status as the new front-runner for the nomination would be confirmed. Hence the wave of fear that is washing over the GOP establishment.
The prospect of a Romney flame-out has given rise to crazy talk about a brokered convention at which an attempt is made to dragoon somebody else, into accepting the nomination -- Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, just about anybody.
This remote scenario would probably lead to a debacle. The last contested GOP convention was in 1976, when incumbent Gerald Ford narrowly defeated insurgent Ronald Reagan -- and then lost to Jimmy Carter in the fall. Back then, the establishment still had the clout to impose its will on the party. Today, restive constituencies such as the tea party refuse to get pushed around by -- to use a Gingrich term -- political "elites." The convention hall in Tampa would be a battle zone.
But what's the alternative? At the moment, Gingrich seems to be fading. This could change in March if he does well on Super Tuesday, but for now it looks like a race between Romney, who has trouble communicating with voters, and Santorum, whose message is alarmingly clear.
At times, it seems as if Santorum is running to become Theologian in Chief. He made the bizarre allegation Saturday that Obama's actions are motivated by "some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible." On Sunday, he said by way of clarification that he understands Obama is a Christian, but that the president was somehow misinterpreting God's truth -- as revealed to Rick Santorum -- about our duty to be stewards of the Earth.
This is not customary fodder for a presidential campaign. Nor is Santorum's obvious obsession with women's reproductive issues -- not just his absolute opposition to abortion, but his criticism of contraception and prenatal testing as well.
Santorum's social conservatism is a huge iceberg, and his views on women and childbearing are just the tip. He not only opposes gay marriage, but has criticized the Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-sodomy laws and declared that "I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts." That alone would be enough to put him well outside the mainstream. But his Ozzie-and-Harriet ideas about family life place him in a different solar system.
In a 2005 book, he lectured women who choose to work outside the home, writing that "the purported need to provide things for their children simply provides a convenient rationalization for pursuing a gratifying career outside the home."
Convenient rationalization? Given all the money Santorum has made as a Washington insider since leaving office, perhaps he forgets that most American families need two incomes just to put food on the table.
The issue, for Republicans, is not just that Santorum would lose in November. It's that he could be a drag on House and Senate candidates as well. Imagine, say, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., trying to explain to his constituents why someone who doesn't fully understand women's participation in the workforce should be president.
Listen closely and you can hear the anguished cries: "Mitch! Chris! Jeb! Help!"