Has the nominating process begun to wear on Romney?

A day before the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney trails Newt Gingrich in the polls by a significant margin, his tax returns inexplicably remain an acute campaign concern and, to make matters worse, he’s lost his historic status as the first non-incumbent GOP candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since 1976. That’s right: Not even the über-smooth Romney or his “cute” campaign staff can polish away the news that Iowa was not actually “a virtual tie” but rather a win for Rick Santorum.

Boy, I bet he wish he could just take a break from his career as a nonstop campaigner. He’s been running for president for a very long time now. He surely must be ready to be done with it one way or another. Presumably, he still prefers “one way,” though: He wants to emerge as the GOP nominee and not just the GOP nominee, but a nominee with the strength to take on Obama.

The nominating process chisels and polishes the candidates — but at what point does the process chisel away something important or polish a candidate into nothingness? Regarding Romney, the speculation has begun that that might have already happened. Charles Krauthammer and Nate Silver, for example, both suggest the specifics of this particular primary season have begun to work to the detriment of Romney’s long-term strength. Here’s Silver:

[T]he dynamics of this particular nomination race are more likely to harm than help Mr. Romney i[f] the battle is extended for some time. The lack of discipline among the rest of the Republican field has been a real boon to Mr. Romney overall, but it is also leading to some unfocused attacks against him that may resonate more with independent voters than among actual Republicans.

Meanwhile, unlike the Democratic nominating battle of 2008 — which was mainly a contest of competing demographic coalitions — there are real ideological disparities among the Republican candidates this year, with Mr. Romney trying to assert his conservative credentials rather than playing to the center of the electorate.

The recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Mr. Romney’s unfavorable rating among independent voters having increased by 8 percentage points since December.

Some Republican insiders argue differently; they say the nominating process continues to sharpen Romney and all the candidates.

Many Republicans feel the primary process has been a critical pressure-test for Romney’s campaign skills, resulting in a more honed and prepared candidate.

“He has weathered incredible attacks and remained largely disciplined,” said one GOP Insider. “Much more of this and he’ll be weakened but for now, it’s good practice for November.”

“The primaries gave Romney the field-testing he needed and helped him build credibility with skeptics,” agreed another Republican.

“It’s the first time he’s won outside of Massachusetts,” pointed out a third. “He needed this. Most candidates improve through the process.”

Still, it seems evident even by Romney’s performances on the debate stage that the campaign has begun to take its toll. To me, though, “the weakening of Romney” and any of the other candidates suggests less that conservatives shouldn’t vet their candidates or that the nominating process should be shortened than it suggests that the focus of modern politics needs to change entirely. Campaigns consume far too much of the time and attention of the electorate, while sitting officials govern under far too little scrutiny.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been far more attuned to what the GOP candidates have had to say than what Barack Obama has had to say, for example. Yet, if this week was bad for Romney, it was far worse for Barack Obama: His speech at Disneyworld was a monstrous PR flop, his first campaign ad showed a marked misunderstanding of the nation’s anger at crony capitalism and his decision against the Keystone XL pipeline sparked a civil war among labor unions. Let’s never forget this election is the one chance we have to hold him accountable.