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What Are the Chances of a Republican White Knight?

The idea probably is somewhere between nutty and delusional, but given the weird ups and downs this cycle, nutty isn’t impossible.

As Republican insiders of various ideological bent, from the more moderate to the uncompromisingly conservative, watch the presidential nominating process with increasing alarm, there is more than a whiff of talk about a white knight who could rescue his party from defeat by jumping into the presidential race late and riding away with the GOP nomination.

Having done this for more than three decades, I’ve heard talk of a deadlocked convention before but never actually seen one as an adult. I don’t really ever expect to witness one, with the nominating process being what it now is.

And yet, consider this year: The winner of the Ames straw poll finished last in the Iowa caucuses; a never-elected pizza entrepreneur shot to the front of the pack and almost as quickly flamed out and exited the race; and a former Speaker who was all but eliminated — twice! — as a serious candidate has suddenly re-emerged as one of the two major contenders for the nomination.

In other words, this year has been so bizarre that anyone who suggests that a white knight or a deadlocked convention is impossible simply doesn’t understand that all of the old rules have been broken and anything is possible this year.

So let’s get the caveat out of the way right now. The chance of a white knight jumping into the race at this point is small. The chance of a deadlocked convention, or at least a convention that actually picks the party’s nominee, is almost equally small.

But in a year when the impossible seems to happen almost weekly, it makes sense to at least take a look at the possibility of each.

First, the GOP presidential filing deadline will not yet have passed in 16 states when voters go to the polls in Florida on Tuesday. Those 16 states account for more than 800 delegates, more than a third of the total number of delegates to the convention.

Some filing deadlines approach quickly after Florida, which could set off a panic if former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) wins.

The deadline for New York (95 delegates), for example, is Feb. 9. It is Feb. 10 for Indiana (46) and Feb. 14 for Pennsylvania (72). After that, there is a break until late February for Delaware (17) and North Carolina (55).

Filing deadlines in delegate-rich states such as California (172), Ohio (66) and New Jersey (50) don’t roll around until late March or early April.

Considering that 21 states have contests in March, which according to Republican National Committee rules must employ some form of proportional representation, and some candidates didn’t qualify for ballot access in other states (Virginia is the obvious example), suddenly the idea of either a white knight or a truly divisive convention starts to sound plausible.

Yes, I know, candidates build up momentum, and sooner or later one candidate will emerge as the inevitable nominee. Of course. Inevitably. Usually. Maybe.

So who might the white knight be?

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has repeatedly turned down pleas to enter the race, or to at least seriously consider it. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is one of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s most outspoken supporters. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels seems to have ruled it out. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan? Come on, be serious. Jeb Bush? Who knows? In other words, I haven’t a clue.

The fact that at least three Republicans are likely in the race for the long haul increases the chances of something odd happening this year.

While Gingrich has particular appeal in the South, Romney should sell well in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, as well as in states such as Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Utah. Texas Rep. Ron Paul will get his share of delegates, too, while some national committee members will remain uncommitted.

Of course, all of this may be moot should Romney win Florida surprisingly comfortably and then go on to win Nevada, Michigan, Arizona and some of the February caucuses. And any talk of insiders successfully implementing a “stop Gingrich” strategy should be tempered with the realization that this isn’t the 1950s, when governors ran as favorite sons to make themselves power brokers or party leaders “controlled” delegations.

In the current era, the voters pick convention delegates and delegates pick presidents.

Still, almost everyone seems unhappy with the remaining GOP candidates except their immediate families.

Gingrich’s ego is too big to fit in the White House and his character too flawed for many voters. Romney seems like a good husband and father but is ridiculously formal and programmed. And Paul is, well, simply in the wrong party. He is a libertarian, not a Republican, and he has little support among regular Republicans.

Defeating President Barack Obama should be there for the taking this year. The economy remains weak, and he has completely lost the confidence of the business community. As a leader, he has been disappointing, even when his party had a supermajority in the Senate and a huge majority in the House. Independents are unimpressed with him.

Politically, things are a mess. There is no other way to describe it.

A white knight? Heck, we need two of them.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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