For many Republicans, the winnowing process for presidential candidates has been unusually traumatic this season. One after another candidate has grabbed a lead in the polls only to then drive the campaign bus straight into the ditch.
But Republicans shouldn't despair. The chaos and disappointments have a purpose. Candidates who are dropping out early are those who realize they don't have a prayer of winning major support from voters in the state primaries, which start next month.
First come Iowa and New Hampshire, then South Carolina, and on Jan. 31, Florida. That's when ordinary Republican voters will begin making the final cuts. Underdogs still have ample time for comebacks, but before Republican delegates gather in Tampa in late August, voters across the country will have spoken clearly. History shows they usually don't make big mistakes.
This pre-election year has been a lively political circus for conservatives. It was hard to imagine the party nominating someone like Donald Trump, but in 2011, anything has seemed possible, at least for a few days.
The large crowd of candidates comes partly from the process itself. The very act of attention-getting can bring rich rewards. As Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin have discovered, the celebrity gained on the campaign trail can pay off handsomely and for years to come.
Another attraction for Republican candidates has been the feeling that the party's revolutionary, tea-party mood might elevate any outspoken outsider, no matter how lacking in knowledge of the bureaucracy and foreign policy.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and businessman Herman Cain found out that a confident personality and a conservative outlook are not enough. As soon as a candidate started riding high on publicity from an overreaching or ill-reasoned statement, the sober-thinking corporate wing of the party would inject a reminder that the party's goal is to defeat President Barack Obama, not just to amuse itself.
As the serious wintertime voting approaches, the occasional incoherence of Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems more and more unacceptable. The libertarian views of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas begin to raise a question of how they will play with independents.
Republicans are taking another look at Newt Gingrich's ethical problems when he was House speaker. They are trying to gauge the significance of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's recent shift to the right.
They are taking new looks at the former governor of Utah, John Huntsman Jr., and the former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson.
They are wondering if the socially conservative former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, can overcome the fact that he was soundly defeated the last time he ran in his home state.
Republicans are wondering if there are any surprises coming from popular Republicans who aren't in the race, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.
They aren't thinking much about the candidates on the fringe, including the former governor of Louisiana, Buddy Roemer. When Roemer was governor, he is said to have given his staff rubber bands to wear on their wrists. When they had a negative thought, they were to pop the rubber band to snap back to positive thinking.
That's not bad advice. Republicans might consider wearing rubber bands until the primary is settled. When something bad happens to someone they admire, they could snap the band and remember that this may be the political end for flawed candidates, but it is a necessary weeding for a party still trying to discover what voters want it to be in 2012.