SPOKANE — To hear some weary rank-and-file Republicans tell it, the increasingly bitter fight for the party’s presidential nomination can’t end quickly enough.
“It’s going to get pretty nasty, the longer it goes, with the mudslinging,” says Marilyn Duley, of Hamilton, Ohio. “I’ll just be glad when it’s over.”
Other GOP loyalists argue that patience is virtue as they seek the strongest Republican to challenge President Barack Obama.
“It’s going to go on long enough until we get the right candidate,” insists Elizabeth Hunter of Tacoma, Wash. — adding that “the race isn’t over until it’s over.”
As Obama prepares for the general election unchallenged, there’s no end in sight to the volatile Republican primary battle being waged by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and, to a lesser degree, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.
Interviews with voters across the country find that the segment of the GOP electorate that hasn’t yet weighed in on the race is torn between wanting the race to end and wanting to have a say in choosing the eventual nominee. There’s also debate over whether the rigorous fight is doing more harm than good to a party going through an identity crisis — one splintered between the GOP’s establishment and its more conservative factions.
Come Saturday, voting will have been under way for two months in a primary season that could well stretch into June. Romney, the front-runner, has been unable to seal the nomination as easily as many party elders had thought he would when the year began. He’s failed to allay the concerns of conservatives who make up the base of the party, and both Santorum and Gingrich have capitalized on that discontent to fuel rises in the campaign at various points.
The four candidates have pummeled one another in debates, commercials and campaign appearances, exposing everyone’s vulnerabilities. None is close to amassing the 1,144 delegates to the national convention required to secure the GOP nomination.
And none is budging from the race — at least for now. That has some GOP leaders voicing concern their eventual nominee will head into the fall campaign broke and battered.
Walker Williams, who cast an early ballot for Gingrich in Georgia, shares the worries that the tone of the race could hurt the ultimate Republican victor.
“The Republicans are killing each other and they should be turning on the president and his policies,” Williams said. “They’re trying to find fault with each other and they should stop that. They should continue to talk about what the president is doing or not doing.”
But Bill Cathey, a lifelong Republican in Oklahoma City, said he thinks the right’s hostility toward Obama will heal any wounds inflicted in his party’s nomination contest.
“It’s like wrestling matches. You have to wrestle a few to win the championship,” he said. “If our guys are so weak that they can’t get through this little patty-cake fight here, well Obama’s machine will come at them hammer and tong.”
The race could continue well into midyear for several reasons.
Republicans invited a drawn-out battle by switching party rules for winning convention delegates. Most states now are awarding delegates proportionally, meaning all four candidates can argue they’re winning even if they’re not.
At the same time, the emergence of “super” political action committees that are running ads on behalf of candidates they support has meant that even if a campaign’s money dries up, a candidate can continue to compete.
Saturday’s Washington caucuses and the 10 contests on Tuesday might provide more clarity to the contest. Poor showings could doom one or more of the candidates, particularly Gingrich. The former House speaker raised his stakes by essentially sitting out February’s contests to focus on Super Tuesday states. Still, Gingrich — along with Santorum and Paul — have suggested they’ll compete all the way to the convention, a notion that doesn’t concern some.
“The party is so concerned that we beat Barack Obama, the process doesn’t matter,” said North Dakota state Rep. Wes Belter, a farmer who attended Romney’s town hall in Fargo on Thursday. He also dismissed the fissures in the party, saying, “Once the candidate is nominated we will stand behind him.”
Indeed, voters in this week’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan were largely on board to support the eventual GOP nominee. But there are signs that the broader Republican Party and the public in general have grown weary of the contest.
The latest AP-GfK poll showed that just 40 percent of Republicans had a “great deal” of interest in following the campaigns, down 8 points from December and about on par with the level last summer when the campaign was in a far sleepier phase, while satisfaction with the field of candidates is static.
There’s a still distant possibility that the race could be unsettled when California awards its 172 delegates in early June, a prospect that both excites and worries die-hard Republicans there like Leland McCorkle.
McCorkle, chairman of the Glenn County GOP in northern California, said he’s glad the party is taking a hard look at its options though he worries about the focus straying from Obama.
“It’s called vetting, but how far do we go with the vetting?” McCorkle wondered.