I guess I was wrong. I thought Republicans surely would have come to their senses by now. Instead, they seem to be rushing deeper into madness.

With less than a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney, the candidate shown by polls to have the best chance of defeating President Obama, evidently remains unacceptable to most of his party. He has spent the summer and fall playing second fiddle to a series of unconvincing “front-runners” who fade into the shadows once their shortcomings become obvious.

The latest is Newt Gingrich, a man with more baggage than Louis Vuitton — and the taste for fine jewelry of Louis XIV, judging by his Tiffany’s bill. Be honest: Is there anybody out there who believes Gingrich would make it through a general election campaign against Obama without self-destructing? I didn’t think so.

Far from settling down, the Republican contest keeps getting wackier. I can think of no better illustration than the fact that a Dec. 27 candidates’ debate — the last before voting actually begins with the Iowa caucuses — will be moderated by Donald Trump.

Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman have had the dignity and good judgment to decline participation in what is likely to be an embarrassment for all involved, except Trump, who lives in a world beyond shame. Paul’s campaign noted that the planned event would create an “unwanted, circus-like atmosphere” that is “beneath the office of the presidency.”

Gingrich, apparently lacking dignity and good judgment, will eagerly participate. He will be joined by Rick Santorum, who, let’s face it, has nothing to lose. Michele Bachmann has not decided whether to join the freak show.

“I’m surprised that Mitt Romney said no,” Trump told MSNBC. “Frankly, I’m surprised, because he really wants my endorsement. I mean, he wants it very badly.”

Really? Before associating themselves too closely with Trump, I’d suggest all the candidates look at a Fox News poll from September. While 10 percent of Republicans surveyed said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate if he or she were endorsed by Trump, nearly twice as many — 18 percent — said Trump’s backing would make them less likely to vote for the candidate.

And that’s nothing compared to the potential impact in the general election against Obama. Among all voters, the Fox poll found, only 6 percent said a Trump endorsement would make them more likely to vote for the endorsee, while a stunning 31 percent said they would be less likely to do so.

That’s quite an achievement for the helmet-haired host of “The Apprentice.” It’s hard to think of anyone else this side of Guantanamo whose backing could turn off nearly one-third of the U.S. voting population.

Doesn’t bother Gingrich, though. He seems to see participation as a matter of courage. “I think if you’re afraid to debate with Donald Trump,” he said, “people are going to say, ‘So you want me to believe you can debate Barack Obama but you’re afraid to show up with Donald Trump?'”

Gingrich thus casts his lot with the likes of Sarah Palin, who claims that if she were running for president, she’d definitely take part in the Trump debate. She says the encounter will be “a positive thing” because Trump “will be able to attract a diverse demographic that maybe has not been as interested in this horse race thus far.” But since we know from the Fox poll that much of the audience is likely to find the spectacle repellent, I suspect Palin is just showing solidarity with Trump. Reality-show stars gotta stick together.

Do you suppose Trump will ask Gingrich about the ethics violations he committed while he was speaker of the House, or the $300,000 penalty fine he had to pay? Do you think he’ll press Gingrich on the lucrative lobbying-by-another-name he’s been doing on behalf of clients such as the government-supported mortgage giant Freddie Mac? Do you imagine he’ll read Gingrich his Dickensian quotes about child labor laws and ask him to explain which jobs are suitable for urchins and which are not?

No, no and no. This show can have only one star, and we already know who it is. No matter which candidates show up, Donald Trump’s debate will be about Donald Trump. I’m betting that at some point during the event, Trump will actually utter the phrase “You’re fired.”

And from the direction of the White House, you’ll hear the sound of high-fives.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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