It's hard to believe Thursday night's debate did much to alter the dynamics of the 2012 GOP presidential race. And it's unlikely Saturday's Ames straw poll will do so either, though it will begin to winnow the field.
History suggests that the race—absent an intervention—is predictably headed toward a showdown between 2008 runner-up Mitt Romney and Texas governor Rick Perry.
In the last five GOP nominating contests without an incumbent Republican president, the runner-up from the preceding competitive cycle has won four times: Reagan in 1980, Bush in 1988, Dole in 1996, and McCain in 2008. The only break in the pattern was George W. Bush in 2000, when the attraction of next-by-birth trumped the principle of next-in-line.
By this precedent, and with Mike Huckabee choosing not to run, Mitt Romney will be the nominee in 2012. Romney's campaign strategy is premised on this precedent holding. And he may well be right. He currently leads in fundraising and in the polls.
On the other hand, you can look at the history this way. In non-incumbent races over the last seventy years, the GOP has nominated a New York governor (1944 and 1948), a former supreme military commander (1952), a vice president from California (1960 and 1968), a former governor of California (1980), a vice president from Texas (1988), the Senate majority leader (1996), and a governor from Texas (2000). The only non-big job/big state nominees were two Arizona senators, Goldwater (1964) and McCain (2008), and they were prominent figures in the party who had toyed with running or had run for president before. On this model, the longest-serving GOP governor from the largest red state, Rick Perry of Texas, is the kind of nominee the Republican party likes to choose.
So history suggests a Romney-Perry showdown for the nomination. The legacy candidate vs. the big state candidate. And the polls have the two of them as the frontrunners.
Should Republicans yield to history, and resign themselves to a Romney-Perry choice? They could do worse. And it's true that all experience has shown that Republicans are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Or, here in the 21st century, is it Republicans' right, and their duty, to throw off such precedent, and to welcome new champions for our future security and prosperity?
But they can only be welcomed if they step forward.