(photo: Gage Skidmore)

How must it feel to be Mitt Romney right now, seeing Rick Santorum bubbling up to the top in the latest national polls?  Is he starting to get the hint yet that — presumptive front-runner or not — the Republican base just doesn’t want him to be their nominee for the White House?

Or maybe he just feels unlucky.  Most presidential candidates only have to defeat one major opponent in the primaries and caucuses.  Instead, despite lopsided advantages in money and organization, Romney has found himself battling what must be the most comically absurd hydra in the history of American politics: every time he decapitates a Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich, an even more unlikely challenger (such as Herman Cain or Santorum) emerges to carry the far-right banner.

This cycle has been going on so long that I felt behind the curve when I laid out the basic reasons for it more than four months ago:

Ever since Ronald Reagan showed them the way, success as a GOP presidential candidate has been defined by the ability to present the public with a bland, unthreatening face that effectively hides the party’s underlying cruel policy agenda.

This almost requires that a promising candidate can’t have too much of a record, lest the agenda be revealed too clearly — or, worse in the eyes of the base, contradicted.  Thus you get nominees like George Bush, who came across as personally innocuous but had the family name to make him marketable (otherwise, he’d have been another Tim Pawlenty).

[...] So what you’ve seen in the post-Dubya era is a disheartened Republican Party flipping channels, skipping past one unsatisfactory pretender after another… all in a vain search for a personality who captures the essential flim-flam needed to get the GOP back into the White House.

The current GOP race has highlighted another facet of this problem — the successful nominee must be utterly subservient to both the Wall Street money and Tea Party culture-war factions of the party, but obscure this as much as possible (including not showing a pronounced tilt toward either side, lest the other become suspicious).

Combined with the deluge of super-PAC negative advertising against Romney and Newt Gingrich, the most popular candidate in recent polls of the Republican electorate seems to be whoever no one has bothered to think much about for awhile.  Once the public spotlight shines on a particular contender for a couple of weeks, their past records and other flaws all become embarrassingly visible, and suddenly hardly anyone wants to vote for them anymore.

Mitt can probably still stagger his way to a victory-by-attrition by carpetbombing Santorum with harsh TV ads, but it’s hard to imagine him mustering any enthusiasm for unifying the party behind him in the fall after such an assault (which GOP insiders are reportedly begging him not to do it).

Maybe the best strategy for Mitt is to make the “overlooked candidate” dynamic work for him by taking an indefinite break from the campaign trail.  Then get word to his super-PAC to split its cash between TV commercials seemingly on behalf of Gingrich or Santorum, whoever is riding higher at the moment (in a mix of 10% half-hearted positive ads versus 90% sledghammer negative ones).

In a few weeks, everyone will be longing for Romney to come back as the party’s savior.