The greatest mistake a coach can make is committing to a strategy before he knows his players. That's how you get a basketball squad with a 12-43 record and a red-faced coach screaming, "SPEED IS THE KEY!" at players who have the strength, and shape, of sequoias. That's how you get a football team with a 2-9 record and a spittle-flecked coach bellowing, "THROW THE LONG BALL," at a quarterback who has the grace, and arm, of a gazelle.
And it's how you get this year's Republican primaries.
The theory, with lessons learned from the 2008 Democratic primary race, was grand. Then, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled late into spring, attracting tremendous free media. The electorate got comfortable with them, and Obama entered the general election a vetted, experienced candidate.
So the Republicans decided they would try to get the same buzz going in 2012. Far more states will award Republican delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all, and contests will be spread over a longer time frame. The Republican Super Tuesday in 2008 included 21 contests and essentially gave the nod to John McCain. Ten states are holding primaries today, and with big states like New York (April 24), Texas (May 29), and California (June 5) scheduled so late, this GOP race could go long.
The party also tried to set the traditional first contests -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- a month later than last time, so the process would stay exciting late without going on so long that voters died of Carville/Matalin Toxicity Syndrome.
But none of it has worked.
The national GOP threatened states that tried to jump in front of the traditional First Four with the loss of half their delegates. Several, Florida most notably, moved their dates up anyway, delegates be damned. What state party leaders crave is attention. When it comes to the spotlight, they are basically the moms from "Toddlers and Tiaras," minus the demure charm.
So Florida leapfrogged, and the First Four leapfrogged back, into January, and other states rushed up to fill the February void.
But the strategy could still have worked were it not for candidates whom voters only like until they get to know them. This year, familiarity breeds contempt, as well as nausea, cold sweats and facial tics.
Obama and Clinton didn't do much name-calling. They couldn't assail each other's beliefs because, as is generally true of top politicians in a functional party, they supported the same policies. And they didn't have super PACs making wild accusations for them.
There was clearly no love lost between them, and Wild Bill was good for a wacky rant or two, but the race was mostly a calm discussion of who would do better in the job. By contrast, the Republicans this year have a very ugly race that none of the remaining candidates has much incentive to quit, barring a Romney landslide tonight. The longer it goes, the worse the non-Ron Paul candidates look. Paul gets ever more lovable, and if he was running for wise, wacky uncle, he'd be a shoo-in -- but he's not.
Santorum's economic plan is based on exorcising the lust demons that torture our souls. Romney thinks he can win over average Joes by bragging that most of the luxury vehicles he parks at his four homes are American-made. And Newt Gingrich would likely face strong opposition if he were running for mayor of his own moon colony.
This nomination battle may continue for a long time and garner lots of free media attention, just as GOP honchos hoped. But the party leaders are now the red-faced boxing coach, screaming, "FINISH THESE CHUMPS AND LET'S GO HOME!" at Romney, a candidate with no big punch, in a bout they purposely scheduled to go 50 rounds.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.