Saturday, August 13, 2011

Race for the White House 2012

It has been an extremely busy week in Republican Presidential politics, and it would be hard for me to possibly recap everything as I offer these relatively brief thoughts on the developments.

As of today, the field is now largely set, although two Republicans with high name recognition; Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani continue to want to be seen as potential entrants. Time may have run out on another potential candidate, who once looked likely to run, but whose name I do not believe I have mentioned yet this year; former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. Former Governors Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer are active candidates who are virtual non-entities in the discussion, and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who apparently is still in the exploratory phase is about as noticed as the dozens of candidates formally running for the nomination whom nobody outside of their immediate families have ever really heard of.

On Thursday, most of the major GOP candidates, who had announced campaigns, took part in the first Iowa debate of the season, sponsored by Fox News. It all took place in the same week as many of the candidates (along with Palin) visited the famous Iowa State Fair, and the debate was also in conjunction with today's Iowa Republican Straw Poll, which drew a large crowd of over 16,000 people anxious to make Barack Obama a one term President.

As for the debate, the conventional wisdom coming out of it was that national front-runner Mitt Romney had a pretty good showing and perhaps surprisingly, once again, none of the other candidates went after him very hard on the stage. This is in contrast to a story that was reported this week in which it claims that the Obama reelection effort, cognizant of the President's low public esteem is preparing a campaign that will focus on "killing" Romney with negative ads on his record and character. Apparently, they are in the belief that Romney will eventually earn his party's nomination and would be their toughest opponent.

While visiting the State Fair this week, a Romney event was interrupted by some left-wing hecklers who seemed determined to through Mitt off his game. Instead, Romney engaged them in a spirited back and forth over Obama's record and his own unwillingness to raise taxes. The site of an energized Romney, raising his voice is not something that has ever been seen much publicly, but many, especially conservatives on blogs and on talk radio who have been suspect of Romney, considered it to have been a pretty good moment for him. They seem to like the fact that it made him look more "human" and comparisons were even made to Ronald Reagan's famous "I am paying for his microphone" response back in 1980.

Newt Gingrich was also seen as having a pretty good debate by some , though few believe it will have any sort of positive influence for his campaign. While he once worked for Fox News, Gingrich took issue with the way questions were being asked by debate panelist Chris Wallace and took hm to task, much to the delight of the audience.

Herman Cain was a bit of a non-entity of the debate, as was Jon Huntsman who was making his first appearance on the national stage, and who seemed a bit nervous. Some people liked the performance of Rick Santorum, although his most memorable appearances on Thursday night involved lengthy back and forth exchanges with Ron Paul over foreign policy and Iran in particular. Those volleys were greeted with lots of cheering and booing among supporters in the audience.

The most notable aspect of the debate though were the exchanges of Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann who did their best to put aside the stereotype of "Minnesota Nice." While Pawlenty seemed sheepish and not very effective in going after Romney when given the chance in the debate, he was more forceful in using prepared statements to go after Bachmann, who fired back against her former Governor, and then some. While the attacks probably hurt both candidates to some extent, I think that Bachmann got the best out of the exchanges. Pawlenty really has found himself in a difficult position because he has now come across in debates as looking like a "wimp" in exchanges with male candidates and perhaps to some as a "bully" in going after the one female in the race.

While Pawlenty had another below par debate performance, Bachmann perhaps did not do as well overall as she did in the last debate, which seemed to pump fire into her campaign. The past week has seen her polling numbers slip a bit nationally and in some states, as the Rick Perry speculation neared its conclusion. Her supporters, and many others, took issue with what was seen as a very unflattering photo of her on the cover of Newsweek magazine in which she was dubbed the "Queen of Rage."

All of this brought us up to today, which saw several Republicans attending the Straw Poll in Iowa, while another candidate formally entered the contest in South Carolina. Romney, Huntsman, and Gingrich both kept a low profile today. While he was the winner of the Straw Poll four years ago, Romney made a decision several weeks ago to skip it and all straw polls this cycle. However, he was on the ballot and received 567 votes, which is either better or worse than expected, depending on who you ask.

Doing far worse at the event was Michigan Congressman Thaddeus McCotter who received just 35 votes, while being one of the only people in the arena to have worn a suit and giving a speech, in which his speaking style can be described (by me) as nothing short of creepy. McCotter said he knew he would not do well in the Straw Poll but was aiming for "double digits." I assume he meant votes, not percentages. Amazingly enough, McCotter's vote total was about half that of the absent Jon Huntsman, who despite appearing in the debate, is making no attempt at all this cycle in Iowa. Gingrich received significantly more votes than those two men, but about two hundred fewer than Romney.

The Ames vote also featured a somewhat impressive write in total of over 700 votes for Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was aided on the ground by a grassroots organization devoted to getting him to run for President. Just before the Iowa event formally kicked off, Perry formally declared his candidacy in South Carolina before traveling to New Hampshire later in the day, and on to Iowa tomorrow. It was an interesting time for an announcement, designed to share headlines with the event in Iowa, although it is probably more accurate to say that Perry's kickoff will not have received the coverage it otherwise would have. Some Iowa Republicans have talked openly about how it offended them that Perry would show disrespect to the Straw Poll in that way.

Regardless of the time of the announcement, Perry is now formally in the race and many expect him to be a major contender for the nomination. The location was also a bit unorthodox, as the candidate gave a formal announcement speech at a gathering for the conservative blog Red State. Perry's path to capturing the nomination will depend heavily on his ability to convince Republicans anxious to defeat Barack Obama that he can appeal to audiences outside of the traditionally "Red States."

The other five candidates all focused on a good showing at the Straw Poll, mindful of the effect it might have on their campaign. Herman Cain perhaps gave the speech that fired up the crowd the most but finished in fifth, behind Rick Santorum, who probably can legitimately be pleased at that showing considering the expectations game. While neither are any real threat to win the actual Iowa Caucuses at this point, Santorum is better organized there currently than Cain, and has the support of many of Iowa's sizable number of home schooling advocates.

Among the three candidates who actually were seen as potential Straw Poll winners, it turned into a pretty close finish between first place winner Michele Bachmann and second placer Ron Paul. A difference of just about 200 votes separated them and there was some speculation that some people who had planned to vote for Paul, and who perhaps had their ticket paid for by his campaign, decided against voting for him after becoming more aware of his outside the Republican mainstream foreign policy views in the debate. Considering how good the Paul people have been at winning straw polls in the past, they probably should be kicking themselves a bit over not being able to secure just a few hundred more votes.

Finishing in the third place "show" position of the Straw Poll horse race was Tim Pawlenty, who received less than half the number of votes as the second place Paul. While perhaps a third place showing with 14 percent of the vote can be spun as surviving, that still has to be a disappointing result for the Pawlenty team which was seen as being the best organized and having spent the most money in Iowa. There will be much talk in the days and weeks ahead over whether the once promising Pawlenty campaign will be able to survive moving forward. For now, they may have to console themselves with the fact that the eventual 2008 GOP nominee John McCain received just one percent of the vote in the last straw poll. However, he did not participate in the event.

At the end of the day though, victory, no matter how narrow the margin, has to be sweet to the Bachmann campaign, who focused on her Iowa roots during her presentation today. It was almost as if she was denouncing his citizenship in Minnesota. With Perry now formally in the race, it was a good time for Bachmann to get some positive news, and she will be able to talk about it tomorrow on all five Sunday talk shows, a television tour de force known by news junkies as the "Full Ginsburg." In fact, she will the first ever Presidential candidate in American history to do that. So, many Americans will be having their Sunday brunch tomorrow with a side of Bachmann on television, legitimately declaring a political victory in the land of corn.