What a great few months the political junky cum television viewer has had, with the endless series of Republican primary debates. Whoever wrote the script really knew what he was doing. The plot: start with a mediocre odds-on champion and then bring on some second-rate challengers. Reality TV was never this good: one week a challenger looks set to run off with the prize, the next he's shunted off to the sidelines and replaced by some other re-run from the nerd pile.

Now I'm not normally given to conspiracy theories. But even for the conspiracy-averse, there's a limit. Are the Republicans really so stupid as to parade their dirty laundry week after week before the American viewer? Who indeed wrote the script? How were the Republicans infiltrated? What's the story behind the story?

Well, who can be sure, but the best way to proceed is to ask, Who benefits? Or, cui bono, as the old Romans used to say, and they knew something about conspiracies. As you watch potential Republican presidents self-immolating on prime-time television, and you consider all the money floating around Washington politics these days, you don't have to be J. Edgar Hoover to know that some heavy, anti-Republican shenanigans were going on behind the scenes.

Behind the scenes? Way behind - at the White House itself. Don't ask here for an exact diagram of how it all worked and who was paid off on the Republican side. I only know the results. And here they are:

President Obama is entering the election year with unemployment stuck between 8 and 9% for virtually his entire presidency, which as all political pundits have pointed out is a sure-fire ticket out of the Oval Office. Add in the vilification he's faced, as America's first black president, from the far right ("he's a Muslim," "worse, he's a socialist," "who cares, he wasn't even born in the States") - and things looked even bleaker.

Until someone in the White House came up with the idea of staging a series of televised Republican debates. Nixon's Watergate conspirators had nothing on this anonymous genius. The liberal television networks naturally thought it a great idea, and even Fox was unwittingly pulled into the plot at one point. And what did you end up with?

The front-runner, Mitt Romney, once moderate enough to be governor of Massachusetts but now stuck in an increasingly right-wing Republican Party, pursues his self-contradictory "I'll-say-whatever-you-want" persona with a vengeance.

It's unfair to focus on Romney merely as flip-flopper par excellence - what television has hit us between the eyes with is his wooden, programmed personality: the silly grin affixed to his face whether he's being attacked or praised (watching his expression, you're never sure he knows which is which); his flashing eyes (is he on uppers?); his rote repetition of his success in business, his success in the Olympics, his "I believe in America." He's more programmed than the Manchurian candidate.

Even in New Hampshire, his home state of Massachusetts' diminutive neighbor, inhabited by a far different crowd than the born-agains of Iowa or the good ole boys of South Carolina, he maxed out at 40%.
And the good news continues for the White House: the frustrated runner-ups, aware they are eternal bridesmaids, have taken off their gloves in attacks on Romney which are tailor-made for Obama's television campaign next fall. Gingrich's blunt two-word zinger knocking him as a purveyor of "pious baloney" will outlive us all; or Santorum hitting him with the hypocrisy of his claim not to be a politician; or Huntsman, in perhaps the most devastating attack of all, belittling his patriotism: "How can you believe in America when you're not willing to serve America? That's just phony."

The Obama campaign won't even have to create commercials next fall - they can just run quips of ex-candidates describing what they think of their fellow Republican nominee.

OK, OK, I know there's no evil genius in the bowels of the White House manipulating Republicans to put their worst face forward. Arguably, from a Republican perspective, that would be the best-case scenario. Instead what you're witnessing is the messy payoff of the severe ideological splintering of the Republican Party.

Ron Paul, with his gold-standard nostalgia, may be roaring down a dead end, but his neo-isolationism, in response to Bush Jr.'s two misguided wars, has found real support in a party that has traditionally been the cup-bearer of national security. And if Romney is no longer the pragmatic Massachusetts Republican of the 1990s, he's a long way, despite his revised social focus, from being warmly received either by evangelical Christians or their more secular Tea Party counterparts.

In a two-party system, each party has to be a pretty broad tent; what's screwing up the Republican tent is the ideological extremism that's crept under the flaps.

A bunch of far-right evangelical leaders are meeting in Texas (where else?) tomorrow to try to settle on one candidate to pool the true conservative vote and up-end Romney: Perry's hopeless, so it'll have to be Gingrich or Santorum. The idea is that, having anointed one, they'll persuade the other, for the good of the Tea Party and (no doubt the argument will go) because God wants it so, to drop out in favor of their choice.

South Carolina, more religious and conservative, is a far cry from New Hampshire, so even with Paul and Huntsman still in the race, the result there is likely to be an Iowa-repeat of Romney against the far-right conservative candidates. A successful push by organized evangelicals to coalesce around one candidate could push Romney's coronation off till spring. Which of course would allow for just that much more Republican blood-letting, though in the end, Romney - with all his super PAC money - is still likely to emerge as the Republican nominee. But a fatally damaged one.

Have at 'im, Newt; right on, Mitt. The cheers from the White House for you two are the loudest of all.