The three defining moments of the Republican debate could arguably be the following: Texas Governor Rick Perry forgetting the third federal agency he intends to eliminate as President, Georgia businessman Herman Cain forgetting his own position on the intervention in Libya, and, ah, ummm….I can’t – the third one I can’t. Sorry. Oops.

These recent gaffes highlight the most unusual aspect of this year’s Republican primary race that differentiates it from all previous races: the complete victory of style over substance – the Sarah Palin-ing of Republican politics. As experience over the past few months has shown us, we should assume that these gaffes will have no discernible negative impacts on these candidates’ poll numbers.

And why should they? This race has only one credible candidate who can possibly beat President Obama: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (the most recent CNN/Opinion Research poll shows Romney leading Obama by 4 points in a two-way matchup, far ahead of any other Republican). In any other year, Romney would be the clear front-runner. He has worked in the private sector, is independently wealthy, and is heir to a Republican dynasty. Republicans should have already coalesced behind him.

But that hasn’t happened yet, because Romney, with his liberal social record in a blue state, is seen as unacceptable by a large swathe of Tea-Party Republicans. These Republican populists want a “not-Romney” to provide the rhetorical passion they desperately crave during this time of economic recession and social upheaval.

So in quick succession the candidates who were meant to save the Republican party have been Representative Michele Bachmann – who briefly led the pack after winning the Iowa Ames straw poll, Rick Perry – whose pitiful public appearances and soft stance on immigration have weakened his inherent Texas-sized appeal, Herman Cain – who still polls in the top tier despite several sexual harassment allegations, and now former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich – who has soared ahead of Romney and Cain in the past week. In all these cases, none of these other candidates have managed to match Romney on providing coherent policy and substance, yet they still have a massive appeal to the Republican base.

Will Newt Gingrich manage to stay at the top or will he too be replaced by a new “not-Romney”? Perhaps for a few weeks but he too will eventually be superseded by someone else who will by Super Tuesday (the day in February or March when the most states hold primary elections) be replaced by Romney.

Why? There is a fundamental divide between traditional Republican moneyed interests and establishment figures who see Romney as their candidate, and the populist masses who latch on, unenthusiastically, to whoever has the most strident rhetoric. Due to the enormous cost of campaigns in the USA, Romney with the support of power-brokers who see him as their best bet against Obama will have the guaranteed money, exposure, and campaign infrastructure to capture the remaining doubting Republicans.