When Mormons are mainstream

How shall I put this? How about straight-out?

The field of Republican presidential candidates is so uncommonly weak that its two best general election prospects are Mormons.

Now that is what you call some serious irony.

It seems only hours ago when the Mormon religion was held in such mainstream suspicion of weirdness that Mitt Romney's practice of it was thought to be the primary impediment to his otherwise credible national political standing.

But now it is conventional political wisdom among insiders that, while President Barack Obama is severely vulnerable because of the weak economic recovery, he could beat any of the candidates in the current Republican field except, maybe, two.

Those would be Romney and the semi-moderate and resume-strong former Utah governor and Chinese ambassador, Jon Huntsman, also, as it happens, a Mormon.

This is less about the nation's emerging religious tolerance -- the nation has no emerging religious tolerance -- than about the kook-right takeover of the contemporary Republican Party.

This Michele Bachmann, who'll probably win the increasingly irrelevant Iowa Republican caucuses, personifies the Republican affliction by which the fringe has become the mainstream.

She thought she was announcing for president in John Wayne's hometown, but it actually was John Wayne Gacy's.

She said our founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery, which is the precise opposite of the truth. She mistook the Lexington and Concord of Revolutionary War lore in Massachusetts for the Lexington and Concord in New Hampshire.

She is, at once, and without reconciling them, in favor both of a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage and the sovereign right of states to handle gay marriage as they please under the 10th Amendment.

She said Obama spent $200 million a day on a trip to India, which not only was crazily false but perhaps physically, and fiscally, impossible.

PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning watchdog of truth in American politics, found at one point that, of 19 Bachmann assertions, only one was wholly true while another was a half-truth and five others were "barely true."

That left 12 Bachmannisms, of which eight were only run-of-the-mill false. The other four were adjudged to have set the poor woman's pants on fire.

Even Chris Wallace, a Fox Republican interviewer, felt it advisable to ask Bachmann last Sunday if she was a "flake." She said she wasn't.

She is Sarah Palin without the pageant credentials but with a law degree. And she is clearly the cream of the current kook contingent, lapping Ron Paul and Rick Santorum and the pizza guy.

A potential moderate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, turns out to have an entirely different fatal failing -- that being that he's a milquetoast.

Who am I forgetting? There's another declared candidate ... Oh, yes, Newt Gingrich, last seen going off the deep end.

Romney has a viable mainstream record as a businessman and as a moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts. He is a chronic flip-flopper, said by some recently clever wag to be unafraid of taking every position on every issue over time. But he could go against Obama with a chance of some independent centrist appeal.

As for Huntsman, now there's an interesting candidacy. He is unknown, and may remain widely so. But some of the old John McCain people are getting behind his cerebral calm.

They like his solid conventional accomplishment as a governor and foreign diplomat, even in early service to the Obama administration. They like his record of center-appealing moderation by which, at one point, he was willing to allow civil unions for gay couples and acknowledge changes in the climate.

Alas, I fear today's garden-variety Republican won't listen to me when I try to tell him that his smart move would be to get behind Romney or Huntsman.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.