Everyone has an incentive to play down these realities and play up Romney’s vulnerabilities instead. The press needs the illusion of a hard-fought campaign to keep its audience from straying. Democrats enjoy the spectacle of right-wing infighting, and benefit politically from it as well. And Republicans don’t want to admit that America’s conservative party is destined to nominate a politician who embodies the very tendencies that the conservative movement came into being to resist: technocracy, ideological flexibility, Northeastern moderation.Except for one thing: it's not over yet. Or at least, there's no evidence available to us outsiders that would indicate it's over. There's still Rick Perry.
Douthat lumps him in with the hopeless candidates, who can be broken up into business plan candidates (it's Chait's phrase, and I love it) such as Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, and with those who are just ideologically all wrong for the GOP, such as Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. But Perry doesn't fit either of those categories. And Douthat doesn't really have the goods on him. All he has is that Perry did poorly in the debates so far. That's not enough; Perry is raising lots of money and therefore running a full-scale campaign, and he's also won a fair number of endorsements. He's a serious candidate, whatever his current polling numbers indicate.
Now, if Romney was doing the things that runaway frontrunners do, I'd agree with Douthat that it's over. But he's not, at least so far. His polling numbers are far behind those of typical frontrunners, and so are his endorsements.
In other words, at this point there's still a very large number of party actors (and, while less important, a very large number of voters) who haven't decided yet. It's a large enough group that if they all went the same way, that candidate would win. Clearly, many of them are wary of Romney (or else they would have jumped on that bandwagon long ago); just as clearly, they aren't enamored of Perry, or at least they're waiting to see if he can run a solid campaign.
So at some point, the campaign might wind up essentially over in the way that Douthat thinks it is now, but unless he has more information than what's in public reporting, that isn't the case yet.
The funny thing is that when Douthat says that "Romney’s path to the nomination is more wide open than for any nonincumbent in decades" but that he could easily lose one or more contest once the voting start -- what he's really describing is where George W. Bush was in fall 1999. The difference between Bush then and Romney now is that Bush had much better polling numbers and was endorsed by far more high-visibility party actors -- a good sign that party actors in general were either happy to have him or at least willing to live with him. And, indeed, Douthat's advice about ignoring the ups and downs of the next few months would have been excellent advice then. John McCain, the 2000 edition? Never had a real chance. Bush had it won, long before McCain's New Hampshire upset.
And we may well wind up there this time. It's certainly possible that Perry's done, either because of the debates or his immigration mess or whatever other reason; even if he's not done yet, perhaps he will be soon. Even if that happens, it will still be quite possible that Romney will lose Iowa or New Hampshire before formally nailing down the nomination, and in that case all of Douthat's cautions will be exactly right.
But we're not there yet.