WASHINGTON — It's a good thing the GOP presidential race slows down from here: The candidates are even more tired than the voters. And, boy, does it show.
Mitt Romney, who scaled back his public schedule this week to get a break, has slept in his own bed just twice since Christmas. Rick Santorum's been making the kind of flubs that come with exhaustion. Newt Gingrich got caught sleeping on camera a few weeks back, and looked like he just might topple over.
And then there's 76-year-old Ron Paul, last in the delegate hunt. The oldest candidate in the race, Paul is running a campaign that's a study in Ever. So. Slow. Pacing.
Maybe that's why he seemed so chipper when he turned up on the "The Tonight Show" this week, chatting about an exercise regimen that "helps my brain relax" while the other candidates were scrambling for every last vote in Illinois.
Does it matter if the candidates are exhausted? Oh, yeah.
That's when they make mistakes, get testy and lose perspective. At best, they may just seem to be off stride, muffing key lines and sounding, well, tired.
That can hurt, especially in an election year when the president is able to cruise into the general election without a primary fight. Barack Obama's still got a country to run, and he's already scheduling lots of fundraisers, but it's nothing like the pace of his opponents.
In an odd sort of way, there can be an upside to the brutal grind of campaign life.
"You do get the snot beaten out of you," Rep. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said after she dropped out of the race earlier this year. But she went on to say that it's a good way to sort out the very toughest candidates for "the toughest job in the world."
"It made me a better person," she said.
Small comfort to Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, who have been slogging through the week-in, week-out grind of primaries, fundraisers, town halls, interviews, hotel rooms and airplane food.
"I woke up this morning and found I did not have any shirts that would be appropriate for a fundraiser, so I had to wash my shirt out in the sink," Romney confessed Tuesday, in an interview sandwiched between a Chicago fundraiser and an Illinois victory party. "And then I thought, ‘How am I going to get this thing dried fast enough?' So I got the iron out. It took me about 20 minutes to iron it dry. The collar is finally dry."
Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's press secretary during the 1992 campaign and then at the White House, recalls that Clinton "made all of his worst mistakes when he was tired."
"But when every primary feels like a single-elimination contest, you can't afford to take a day off," she said.
Overall, Myers said, Romney seems to be showing the stamina of the "Energizer bunny." But she said the Republicans also seem to be suffering from a lack of "message discipline" as they dart from one event to the next without taking time to think through exactly what they want voters to hear.
"That's probably a function of getting tired," she said.
After Saturday's voting in Louisiana, the candidates get a 10-day break before Washington, D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin hold primaries on April 3. That's a welcome respite, but there still will be ads to cut, supporters to cajole, money to raise and all the rest.
The lighter schedule is coming none too soon.
Santorum, Romney's chief rival, has had to backpedal on a series of ill-thought remarks in recent days, prompting him to wish for a "do-over" after saying the unemployment rate wasn't a crucial issue to his campaign.
"At the age of 53, with seven children ages 20 to 3, it's not exactly the best time to be going out and running for president of the United States," he said last weekend in Effingham, Ill. He'll sometimes sprint home to McLean, Va., for less than a day of down time with his family before revving back up for another long stretch of campaigning.
Santorum will catch a break wherever he can get one. That left him apologizing last week after a less-than-flattering photo surfaced of him asnooze, shirtless, in a chaise lounge during a campaign stop in Puerto Rico.
"I'm sure that's not a pretty sight," he allowed.