Saturday, September 24, 2011

Race for the White House 2012

I believe that when the history of Campaign 2012 is written, this may be seen as the week when the Republican Presidential nomination was effectively clinched. The past few days saw all the major Republican candidates in Florida for a Fox News debate on Thursday, followed by a CPAC conference on Saturday, and a state party sponsored straw poll earlier today. Those events produced some surprises, but my overall take is that it was a horrible weekend for one of the front-runners in the nomination race. While any successful Presidential candidate will endure many ups and downs, and perhaps even see their political obituary written during a long campaign, I think some of what happened this week will be tough to overcome for the candidate in question.

I am going to experiment with doing things a little different this week, and it may become a new format for these weekly posts. In order to try to get the most organized information about the entire field, I am going to focus on reviewing events and offering analysis for each of the GOP candidates, one at a time.

The eventual winner will of course face incumbent Democrat Barack Obama, who despite some Republican predictions and perhaps Democrat secret hopes, does not seem likely in my mind to end his bid for reelection or be in danger of losing any sort of thus un-attempted primary fight. So, the Democrats are likely stuck (for better or worse) with a once heralded political orator and inspiring political figure, who after more than two and a half years in office continues to preside over a very poor economy, with no real hope for recovery in sight, a base of anxious and somewhat disappointed supporters, independents that he might have lost for good, and those who voted against him in 2008 that he has been completely unable to win over. There is also now headlines about the Administration's role in trying to bolster a failed green energy company named Solyndra, which may not be a household name (and may never be), but any talk of a "scandal" involving the White House is not a welcomed development.

Before looking at the nine GOP candidates who debated in Orlando on Thursday night (Buddy Roemer can't seem to catch a break), speculation continues to surround two big name Republicans who will need to make a final decision soon. Ultimately, I do not think either will run. If they do, it will add much intrigue and excitement to the race. Otherwise, what is currently looking like a two man contest for the nomination, after this past week, may wind up being less competitive than some currently realize.

Sarah Palin insists she will be announcing her decision soon, but is aggressively trying to raise money for her Political Action Committee in wake of the announcement. The Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie has insisted for months that he is absolutely not running for President, and has said there is nothing short of committing suicide that could send a more powerful message behind his previous no's. Still though, talk continues to swirl around him, with murky news reports indicate that he is still seriously considering the race.

Republicans who are dissatisfied with their choices (especially in wake of the apparent downfall of the Rick Perry campaign) are those most actively pushing Christie, believing that his tough talking blunt matter and victory in the blue state of New Jersey make him the most electable candidate.

Let me say that I really like Chris Christie and think he has a bright future of public service ahead of him; perhaps U.S. Attorney General under a Republican President, but I completely disagree with those who say that Christie would be electable. I think he would have significant political problems in a national race related to a number of things, but the biggest (no pun intended) would be due to the fact that he is a man who appears to weigh about 400 pounds.

I certainly believe this is unfair in a way, and that all people and candidates should be judged by the content of their character and not the size of their waist, but the political reality we live in is that about sixty percent of the country would rule Christie out as a potential President upon a first glance at him, or would be convinced based on his weight not to support him. There are many layers as to why people would think or react that way, but overall, it is just a political problem that would never be able to overcome.

Now let's look at the candidates. While these are not formal power rankings, I am going to try to cover them from least likely to be nominated to most:

Gary Johnson-

The former Governor of New Mexico is the one pro-choice candidate in the field and this week was invited to take place in his first debate since May. I believe that while he would never come close to winning anywhere, he would have a chance to appeal to libertarian minded Republicans as a less crazy version of Ron Paul, but in the debate struggled to really make that case. He even claimed that of all the candidates, Paul would be his most likely hypothetical running mate. While it is true that the two men have the most in common politically, it just looked like Johnson was pandering for Paul's supporters who are unlikely to leave him.

Stylistically, Johnson did not come across well in the debate, almost as if he was going through temporary marijuana withdrawal, but his line about his neighbor's dogs creating more shovel ready jobs than the Obama Administration was a big hit with all Republicans. However, it seems as if the joke might have been lifted (perhaps unwittingly) from a Rush Limbaugh quip earlier in the week.

Rick Santorum-

All his years in Congress indicate that he has political skills, despite his thumping at the polls in 2006 when he lost his seat. While his presence is largely irrelevant, I do tend to think that he has done fairly well (for whatever it is worth) in the debates. This past Thursday, I found myself agreeing with him on the forceful way he disagreed with Jon Huntsman on the issue of Afghanistan and Iraq and I believe he was extremely effectively politically in going after Rick Perry on the Texas Governor's immigration record.

There is no doubt that Santorum landed some serious blows on Perry in that exchange (to which Mitt Romney might owe him a debt of gratitude) and that Perry feeling forced to try to fight back against Santorum, quite ineffectively, was one of the defining moments of the debate.

Herman Cain-

He will not be the nominee of course, but in the debates, including this past Thursday, has proven to be an effective communicator. I think he was at his best in this past one, although he may primarily be lying on his "999" economic platform. The former businessman was applauded by the audience and by his fellow candidates by relating the story as to how he was given little chance for survival just a few years back when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

A strong showing in Florida leading up to today's event might have something to do with the fact that Cain was the surprise winner of the Florida Straw Poll and did so running away, with over twice as many votes as the second place finisher, Rick Perry, who had invested heavily in trying to win the event and had been expected to be the winner.

This past week, Florida Governor Rick Scott predicted that the straw poll winner would win Florida next year in the primary and be the next President of the United States. I would be curious to know if he would still say that. There is no doubt that Cain will (and should) attempt to spin his big straw poll win as a sign of momentum in his campaign, but I think the results can be attributed mostly to a couple other factors.

One is that Rick Perry was viewed as having had such a horrible debate showing, and one which angered conservatives in at least one circumstance, that his supporters switched their votes to Cain, either as another option or as a way to send a message to the Texas Governor. I think that Romney supporters who took part in the event that the former Massachusetts Governor did not choose to compete in, might have also thrown some votes in Cain's direction in order to try to harm Perry.

Ron Paul-

Considering that straw poll victories were once all that he had going for him, the fourth place showing for the Texas Congressman with just about 10 percent of the vote has to be disappointing. Still though, Paul has his cadre of devoted supporters and polls out this week show that he might now be in third place nationally and perhaps even second place in New Hampshire.

Jon Huntsman-

He has been focusing strongly on New Hampshire, and while he does not seem to be a threat to actually win there, is now seemingly polling far above the miserable numbers he is getting nationally. One poll from the Granite State this week showed him with 10 percent of the vote, in third place, and ahead of Rick Perry.

Things are still pretty tough to overcome politically though for the former Utah Governor. During the debate, he made note of the back and forth exchanges between Romney and Perry, and compared them to one time polling leaders Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson who were overcome by John McCain in the last cycle. It appears though that a political "double murder" scenario between the other candidates might be his one and only hope for the nomination.

Newt Gingrich-

The former House Speaker remains completely unelectable and someone who was never going to be the Republican nominee. His entire campaign for the Presidency is basically dependent on exposure through the television debates.

However, he seems to get pretty high marks for his intellect and the way he states his positions in these debates and all sorts of Republican political junkie types who have been focusing most on those events have been declaring him the "winner" and saying things like "if only Newt were...", etc. etc. I do not completely buy into the train of thought that Gingrich is such a great debater, but I do appreciate the way he has tried to act like a party unifier during those forums.

Michele Bachmann-

She was once the political flavor of the week and looked like a top tier contender. Now, I think her campaign may be on life support and there will be real talk about her as a potential drop-out in the very near future. She is said to not have any resources to compete beyond next year's Iowa Caucuses, and she may conclude that focusing on a reelection bid to Congress is in her better long term political interest before too long.

Bachmann might have succeeded in thwarting the Presidential ambitions of Tim Pawlenty, but right after her big straw poll victory in Iowa, Rick Perry entered the race and has stopped her cold. (It remains to be seen if Perry has now knocked himself out of the race too.) Of the eight candidates who were listed on today's straw poll in Florida, Bachmann finished last with just over one percent of the vote.

Her first debate, earlier in the year, was widely praised, but she has struggled to live up to that standard since, and once again, appeared to be invisible at times on stage this past week. She is continuing to criticize Perry on the Gardasil issue, but that her seemingly over the top attacks on that might have backfired on her as well.

Rick Perry-

This past week has seen him continue to pick up endorsements from some of his fellow Republican Governors, and he still leads the national polls (albeit by a more narrow margin) as well as those in the early states of Iowa and South Carolina, but the events this week in Florida, on the heels of two previous failing to meet expectations debates, have hurt his still relatively new candidacy, and while slippage might not appear glaringly evident in the polls right away, I do think a serious political toll has been taken.

Both stylistically and substantively, Perry was seen as seriously lacking in his Orlando debate showing. He received criticism for the way he tried to defend himself by attacks from the other candidates and by the mangled way he tried to stick the rhetorical knife in Mitt Romney, who seemed to be able to easily turn the attacks on Perry. There has been talk that Perry, who had back surgery not long ago, might be in pain and uncomfortable on stage, especially as lengthy debates near their endings.

I do not know how much there is to that, but I think the debate performances are showing to Republicans,what I have long suspected, that Perry is just not a good debater, is more swagger than substance, and would be a huge risk to put on a stage in a debate against Barack Obama.

While I think Rick Perry has been a pretty good Governor of Texas, and while I agree with him on most issues, I think the way conservatives thought of him for months this summer and after he entered the race as some sort of masterful politician was nothing more than a huge political fairy tale, viewed by people who had not been watching his career for years. Perry was once "the great right hope", and I believe he will continue to have a lot of supporters, but I think many of the people who once looked at him as their candidate have begun to realize that he just may not have what it takes.

One particular moment from the Thursday debate may have done more to harm him than anything else and I think lost him a lot of support that evening. In defending his stance on in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants in his state (an issue I think is far more complicated than a simple black or white approach but which is very unpopular with conservatives), Perry seemed to claim that those who disagreed with him had "no heart." That elicited boos from the audience and an incredibly negative reaction by a Fox News Focus Group in Florida being monitored by pollster Frank Luntz. Several of the participants were on television right after the debate saying that Perry lost them forever right there, and that viewed his overall performance as weak.

As for the straw poll today that Perry had hoped to win; he finished a very distant second to Herman Cain, and just barely ahead of Mitt Romney, who had put no resources into the contest, (and who probably saw some supporters go for Cain for strategic purposes.)

It is still too early to totally write Perry off at this point, but it was a bad week for him, both stylistically and because of the focus being put on him over the immigration issue. Many of his supporters had claimed that he may not be quite as electable as Romney, but that it still would not prevent him from beating Obama, and that he was easily the more conservative of the two Republicans.

With several polls this week showing Romney running significantly better, and with Perry looking so not ready for prime time in the debates, the electability argument has been significantly increased. The fact that the Texas Governor may now also be angering conservatives on an issue like illegal immigration probably hurts even more on the ideology front.

Mitt Romney-

As regular readers would know, I have strongly supported this candidate for a long time now, and have never gotten too up or too down about his chances for the nomination thus far. He was once again seen as having had a very strong debate performance, stylistically and substantively, and of course, any damage done to Perry is helping Romney by default. Perry once benefited by taking support away from Bachmann, but I think the votes that Bachmann might be continuing to lose may instead now be going to Romney.

I neglected to mention last week that Romney had been endorsed by former rival Tim Pawlenty, who agreed to be the new national co-chair for the Romney campaign and who will be active on his behalf. On Thursday, Michigan Congressman Thad McCotter ended his little known Presidential bid and endorsed Romney as well. That part was especially surprising considering that McCotter had made public statements against Romney that were extremely negative (more so than Pawlenty had.) The fact that these ex-candidates might now be fine with Romney might perhaps be politics as usual, but in McCotter's case evidence that maybe he was not all too serious about the criticisms in the first place.

Romney may never truly be beloved by many conservatives who still harp over "Romneycare" and various other things, but his primary debate performances, strong showing in general election polls, and perceived ability to be a strong debate challenge for Obama next fall might help them warm up to the potential of his nomination.

The former Governor of Massachusetts has seemingly gotten the best out of exchanges with Rick Perry in three debates now, and while maintaining the edge of appeal to Independents, might have won over some conservatives at least on the immigration issue.

Running for President a second time has made Romney a better, more focused candidate, especially in the debates, but it was the entrance of Rick Perry and the buzz about his strong campaign roll-out that may have really energized the campaign of Mitt Romney to fight back and win.