Saturday, December 17, 2011

Race for the White House 2012

In Presidential politics, a week can be an eternity, and the landscape on this particular Saturday night looks far different than it would have been expected to look last Saturday night.

A week ago, most of the GOP candidates met in Iowa for a debate broadcast on ABC, which received high ratings. It was the first debate where Newt Gingrich was expected to face intense scrutiny as the new front-runner in the race, and after the showdown, the conventional wisdom was that he emerged pretty much unscathed and that his front-runner status would be strengthened.

Conversely, the pundits all declared that Mitt Romney had a relatively poor debate due in large part to what they considered one of the major gaffes in the campaign. I have to admit, as a Romney supporter, I kind of shuddered myself, and expected it to be bad news in the political short-term. During the debate, Romney, in a moment of frustration with a claim being made by opponent Rick Perry (who it should be pointed out has fallen back in the pack and would be in the greater interest of Romney to rebound and harm Gingrich), offered to bet the Governor of Texas $10,000 that he could not back up what he was claiming.

Romney would have won the bet, and Perry did not take it, (and unfortunately for him did not have an immediate comeback at such an opportune time), but the former Massachusetts Governor's campaign advisers must have been aghast at the prospect of the very wealthy, typically straight-laced candidate offering such a brash wager on national television during a debate, for an amount that the average American would consider obscene.

I am not claiming that Romney's bet offer was a strategically good political move (although it might have made him look "less Mormon"), but a week later, all Romney supporters have to not only be breathing a sigh of relief, but in actuality take great delight at just how much stronger Romney looks this Saturday evening than right after the last debate.

Much of that has to do with the fact that Gingrich has had a week that has seen him fall steeply in national and state polls. Without any other viable "anti-Romney candidates" left to get a first look, those folks may be running out of places to turn. I have always believed Gingrich's support was extremely thin and all the discussion in the media and online about him, his past, his views, and his political viability, have now taken a toll and is likely to continue to do so. While the pundits thought Gingrich may have survived last Saturday night's debate, I believe that a lot of people heard things about him that night for the first time that have caused them concern.

As the week progressed, Gingrich, long known for his shoot from the lip style, made one of the larger missteps of the campaign. Mitt Romney had said that Gingrich should pay back the millions of dollars he made as a consultant to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which would be in line with what Gingrich has said before about politicians who took money from the two mortgage giants in their happier times. The former U.S. House Speaker reacted angrily to Romney by stating that he would only consider it when Romney pay back the private sector money he made many years ago as an executive with Bain Capital. Sounding like a Daily Kos reading Wall Street Occupier, the supposedly conservative Gingrich referenced Romney bankrupting companies and laying people off.

Besides for the obvious differences between the way the two men got rich, conservatives by and large felt that Newt's socialistic response was ludicrous and perhaps evidence that the old Gingrich and his lack of discipline was still very much in effect. The Romney campaign quickly produced video clips of Gingrich earlier this year lavishly praising Romney's business success as evidence of his strength as a leader. By the end of the week, Gingrich retracted his criticism of Romney's private sector record and said that his opponent had gotten under his skin and forced him to make an unwise statement. Gingrich said he would score that round for Romney.

Indeed, that one 15 second soundbite by Gingrich may prove in retrospect to have been the beginning of the end of the comeback of his campaign. The candidates met again in Iowa on Thursday night, this time on Fox News, and Gingrich took some major hits early on, while conventional wisdom was that Romney rebounded with a very strong debate performance.

With late week polls showing the national gap closing, significant differences in electability against Barack Obama, and a Rasmussen Reports survey now showing Romney narrowly ahead in Iowa, momentum clearly is back on the side of my preferred candidate. In a pretty new development this campaign cycle, political junkies often check the site several times a day to see where some people are putting their money on shares of candidates. Needless to say, it was a very good few days for Romney in those markets.

The good news has continued with the endorsement of Romney Friday by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. With South Carolina the third state which will be voting, a Romney win there, where he is currently considered the underdog could be a knockout blow. Haley, a Tea Party favorite has taken some heat for her strong endorsement of Romney, whom many on the right deem not sufficiently conservative, but they ought to realize that Haley also endorsed him back in 2008. Romney returned the favor when he offered support to Haley, when she was a heavy underdog in a crowded 2010 Gubernatorial primary, and that seems to have paid off for him.

This evening, Romney received the endorsement of Iowa's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register. A variety of polling outfits are now seeming to show the contest in Iowa, which had Gingrich ahead by a significant margin not long ago, is now a three way race between Gingrich, Romney, and Ron Paul, with Gingrich looking to be falling fast. The campaign ads that Ron Paul are running against him are certainly continuing to that, and Paul is said to be the best organized on the ground in the Hawkeye State. For a variety of reasons, I still think his actual result on Caucus night might be less than what the polls claim he will have.

Speaking of Ron Paul, Thursday night's debate performance may have been bad for him with some of those who were planning to support him. To be fair, Paul has as devoted a cadre of backers as any politician in America, who totally buy into his libertarian philosophy and will not abandon him for any reason. Others though, who might have cheered on Paul's economic views regarding spending or the Federal Reserve, may have heard in the starkest terms for the first time Thursday night, just how out of the political mainstream Paul is on the issue of Iran (a nation he seems to downright have sympathy for) and the security of Israel. I think it is fair to say that on the issues of foreign policy and national defense, most Republicans would find the views of Barack Obama preferable to Ron Paul, and that's saying a lot.

Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich are the only candidates with any sort of tangible strength in both of the first two states. To briefly look at the other candidates in the finals weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire vote, there is one candidate in Jon Huntsman who is focusing solely on the Granite State (though he was present in Thursday night's Iowa debate, but did not make much news). Huntsman's appeal to moderates and Independents may ultimately get him into double digits when New Hampshire votes, but if Romney has the "big mo" nationwide, it would probably not be anywhere near enough for the kind of showing Huntsman would need to survive.

On the other side of the coin, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum have mostly tunnel vision on the Iowa Caucuses, hoping for even a surprise third place finish as a springboard to future contests.

Santorum might be running a race against time, but he has spent the most time on the ground in Iowa and is believed to have an organization of social conservatives in place, similar to the winning strategy of Mike Huckabee four years ago, that could surprise people on January 3. I believe Bachmann had a pretty strong debate Thursday night and effectively landed blows against Gingrich. While it might not be in overwhelming numbers, there is reason to believe that Bachmann is on the upswing both nationally and in Iowa, and has the potential to take votes away from Gingrich, just as other conservative candidates had passed around those same voters, who may have already been with Bachmann earlier on.

While he looks immensely weak in New Hampshire, Perry probably also has the potential for growth in Iowa. He is said to have improved somewhat in the most recent debates, but compared to his earlier performances, it would be hard not to. Last week, I mentioned how Perry, who also refers to himself as an "outsider", was running on a strong Christian identity message, may have found a new narrative comparing himself to Denver Broncos Quarterback and Evangelical Christian, Tim Tebow, the most significant cultural figure in America the past couple of weeks.

It would indeed be of Tebowesque status if Perry were able to rebound in this campaign and win a state like Iowa. With Tebowmania sweeping America, Perry is likely to keep talking about him. Perhaps if the Governor spends half of his time at all public events silently Tebowing besides a podium, it would lessen a chance for gaffes. If somehow Mr. Tebow were to actually give a personal endorsement, a la Chuck Norris on behalf of Huckabee in 2008, all bets may be off.

To conclude, politics has once again proven itself unpredictable over the last week as both Romney and Gingrich have moved in opposite directions than what were expected. Next week could bring about more surprises though, as it is never good to peak too early in Presidential politics.

While national polls and those in many states may take a bit of time to catch up, this past week has worked in a way which has made it clear that the fundamentals of the GOP nomination contest favor Mitt Romney. While the White House spent the week recognizing the formal end of the Iraq War (which is a political plus for them) and once again wrangling with Congress over budget and tax matters (in a way which may once again disappoint the Democrat base), a relatively quick and easy march to primary victory by Mitt Romney, whom they recognize as their toughest possible opponent, would not be a welcomed development.