Trying to get a handle on the wild and seemingly unpredictable ride of the Republican nomination process seems a bit of an impossible task. With the rise and fall of many candidates, the fall and rise of one candidate in particular and a new front-runner seeming to emerge each month, there seems to be no unifying measurement to gauge things.
The question is how does one chart the movements in a way that makes sense and gives one the ability to put all the moments in context, providing a meaningful way to look at things going forward. Seems impossible. But, hold on, there just might be one.
Republican voters are looking for someone, if possible, who is high on the attributes of competence (the ability to hold the office or electability) and authenticity (stands up for his or her beliefs). While being likeable is an asset, it does not seem to be required in the Republican campaigns.
Throughout this high-stakes race, Mitt Romney has consistently been viewed as competent and his performance in the debates has underscored this. But his vulnerability has always been that conservative voters do not see him as authentic or principally conservative. And so he has been stuck in the mid-20s throughout, and voters have been in search of someone who has been both competent and authentic.
Initially in the late spring and early summer, they thought they might have that with Michelle Bachmann. But while they see her as authentic, they do not see her as competent to be president, which her performance has underscored.
Then, Gov. Rick Perry entered the scene and conservatives thought he might be the one with the magical combination of both attributes. Alas, while they see him as authentic (and that got a little weakened by his immigration stand on college tuition), his debate performances hurt him badly on the competence score.
Then pizza tycoon Herman Cain impressed and voters flocked to him hoping he would be the one. H also had the advantage of being likeable, but in the course of the past 60 days, voters abandoned him when they saw him as incompetent and unelectable.
So, Newt Gingrich is now the recipient of the hopes of the conservative voters. And, as of today, he leads both on authenticity and competence, which has put him in the lead nationally and in nearly every early state so far polled. The question will become whether he can sustain his strengths on the two attributes.
If Romney is to regain the lead, Gingrich is going to have to suffer a drop on either competence or authenticity. And in the crucial ABC debate coming up this weekend, watch for attacks by others on these attributes. If they can't make them stick, then Gingrich is likely to keep moving toward securing the nomination because of his advantage on these key values.
Competence and authenticity are the best bellwether attributes, or values, to give a sense of where the race has been and where it might be going, at least through the nomination process. Sometimes, even in a crazy up-and-down process like this political cycle has been, it is possible to get through all the noise and find the frequency.