For many months, an odd trend has held sway in the GOP and the media reporting on the presidential campaigns as they shaped up: calling the weekly Mitt Romney polling strength and the Not-Mitt Candidate of the moment who shared or even overtook the lead in those polls. That Not-Romney Candidate has rotated through the ranks over time, but the position has remained important to a major faction of the GOP. Even on election night in the New Hampshire primary.

Jonah Goldberg’s article on NRO says that ‘despite his lead, the not-Mitt mood is intensifying.’

Mitt Romney is the most improbable of presidential candidates: a weak juggernaut.

He is poised to sweep every primary contest — a first for a non-incumbent. And yet, in Republican ranks there’s an abiding sense that he should be beatable — and beaten.

It’s not that Romney doesn’t have fans. His events in New Hampshire were packed to the rafters and felt like general-election rallies. He’s surging in polls in South Carolina and Florida.

And yet the non-Mitt mood just won’t go away. Indeed, it’s intensifying. One reason for that is people are starting to doubt whether he is in fact the best candidate to beat President Obama. For instance, you hear conservatives wondering more and more whether all of the attention from the White House is a head fake. Romney certainly makes a convenient foil for a presidential campaign already in populist overdrive. The desperate attacks from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry on his career in the private sector are indefensible, but Romney certainly has a gift for inviting them. You can be sure President Obama is grateful to Gingrich and Perry for making them bipartisan critiques.

No kidding. For months now, I’ve been picturing an Obama campaign collecting and saving sound and film clips of the Republicans tearing into each other, but mostly the field of candidates tearing into Mitt Romney. It’s all going to come back in the general election campaign, so why do they do it?

I asked on my Facebook page the rhetorical question ‘Why do attack ads work?’ And got a range of interesting opinions. But not one person said they don’t work.

Goldberg continues:

Romney was at his best swatting away the swarm on inanities at the debate…He’s weakest, however, when discussing himself. In this he is the anti-Obama. The president is never more eloquent and heartfelt than when he is talking about himself; it’s his ideas he can’t move.

Romney, meanwhile, has the opposite problem. Voters can buy his policies; it’s the salesman that leaves them unsure.

That’s true. Voters don’t buy his salesmanship, even if they buy his policies. It’s weird.

His authentic inauthenticity problem isn’t going away. And it’s sapping enthusiasm from the rank and file. The turnout in Iowa was disastrously low, barely higher than the turnout in 2008 — and if Ron Paul hadn’t brought thousands of non-Republicans to the caucus sites, it would have been decidedly lower than in 2008. That’s an ominous sign given how much enthusiasm there should be for making Obama a one-term president. It’s almost as if Romney’s banality is infectious.

None of this says anything about core fundamental values, competing worldviews, the conviction of human dignity that should be the center of gravity for anchoring the politics of the moment. It’s all cosmetic, or pragmatic.

The most persuasive case for Romney has always been that if he’s the nominee, the election will be a referendum on Obama. But that calculation always assumed that rank-and-file Republicans will vote for their nominee in huge numbers no matter what. That may well still be the case, but it feels less guaranteed every day.

Every four years, pundits and activists talk about how cool it would be to have a brokered convention. This is the first time I can remember where people say it may be necessary.

One of my guests on radio, a political expert in Washington, said we’re living in unprecedented times, and this election is even more consequential than the last. That rings true. But what threw me was what she said next, and with conviction: We’ve never had a moment in time when we could have more hope.

Little more than a week ago, the worldwide headlines rang in the new year declaring the populist mood to be ‘cautious optimism.’ We are a people of hope, but we are wiser and more discerning in extending it.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....