Saturday, January 07, 2012

Race for the White House

Two thousand twelve is now here, the Republican Presidential nomination battle is in full swing, and we have just gone through one the most historic and somewhat under-reported events in American political history, in which the Iowa Caucuses were won by a reported mere eight votes.

Right off the bat, let me say that it is has been a pretty good week for my candidate Mitt Romney, and things are falling into line for him just about exactly the way I have envisioned all along. Still though, the narrow winner of the contest in the Hawkeye State is now the most wanted man in politics and can expect to take rhetorical fire from all angles before the voting in New Hampshire this coming Tuesday and then next in South Carolina two weeks from today.

Mr. Cub Ernie Banks was fond of saying, "it's a beautiful day for baseball, let's play two!" The remaining Republican Presidential candidates will have their own version of a double header about to begin in just a few hours as the candidates will debate in New Hampshire first tonight on ABC (opposite an NFL playoff game on another network) and then tomorrow morning on NBC's Meet the Press. The debates that occurred four years ago in between Iowa and New Hampshire were filled with fireworks, and tonight may see more of that, as the candidates should be expected to gang up on Romney, the overwhelming national front-runner. Since most believe Romney assuredly has the New Hampshire primary wrapped up, much of what occurs in these debates may indeed be more tailored to the audience in South Carolina.

Instead of writing a novel, I just plan to use the rest of this post to briefly review the Iowa results and talk about what is on the line for these candidates going into the Granite State primary.

First, let us pay tribute to Michele Bachmann, who after finishing a very disappointing sixth place in Iowa, her native state, dropped out of the race the next day, as I speculated she would do last week. The remaining supporters of the longest lasting female GOP Presidential candidate ever are likely to migrate to the campaign of Rick Santorum at this time.

Finishing in seventh place in Iowa, where he did not campaign, with well under 1,000 total votes was Jon Huntsman, who was able to have New Hampshire to himself for much of the final days leading up to Iowa. Huntsman has a whole lot on the line in New Hampshire, where he has invested all. I would surmise that if he really should drop out if he finishes any worse than second there. However, I think he will keep going to South Carolina and maybe Florida if he finishes third or fourth. There is a very real chance though that the last "moderate" alternative to Mitt Romney will finish in fifth place, which should be fatal to his scant Presidential hopes. My hunch is that is what will happen. While Huntsman did receive the endorsement this week of the liberal Boston Globe newspaper, any effect it might have on New Hampshire Democrats or Independents who might cross over on Tuesday will be muted. Few expect Huntsman to have any chance of a victory in the state and anybody who might have genuinely been attracted to Huntsman on ideological grounds has probably gravitated to Romney by now.

Huntsman will not finish last among the major candidates on Tuesday though. That honor will go to Rick Perry. While I believe he is taking part in this weekend's debates, he has recently made the decision not to play in New Hampshire, but instead is focusing on South Carolina, the first contest in the South.

Back in the summer, Bachmann and Perry were the biggest stories to watch in Iowa, but both saw tremendously disappointing results in the state, especially for Perry, whom polls after he announced had leading the state by a wide margin. When it came time for the voting though, Perry only secured 10 percent, and his supposedly strong organization and backing by some right-wing blogs was not enough to keep late deciding conservative votes for going for other later surging candidates. There were some pretty big examples of campaign infighting and the airing of dirty laundry to be printed in a national publication before the Iowa vote.

On Tuesday, Perry made the first concession speech of his career, and in a graceful moment appeared to suggest he would be exiting the race. The next day, Perry returned to Texas to "assess" his campaign, and everyone assumed it was a done deal, only to see him tweet an announcement that it was on to South Carolina after all. Perry has really not been heard from since and I find this incredibly odd. There is absolutely no reason for a candidate to signify they are about to get out of a race unless they actually do. That speech itself had people basically write off any hopes for a Perry comeback. He is at about one percent in the large swarm of New Hampshire polls to come out this week and not much higher than that in those from South Carolina. I do not really know what to make of all this back and forth with the Governor, but it is true that his staying in the race is probably a good thing for Mitt Romney in South Carolina, as it would further divide the conservative anti-Romney vote further, as seen in Iowa. If I did not know any better, I would think a deal might have been worked out. If Perry spends these debates going after Santorum and Gingrich exclusively, that will really raise some flags.

Finishing off the Iowa medal stand was Newt Gingrich, the candidate who had a wide lead in Iowa just a few short weeks ago. The distant fourth place finish for the former Speaker was not a huge surprise by the time Tuesday had rolled around but was still indication that his campaign had suffered a major setback. In my opinion, Gingrich through his words and body language, gave one of the most ungracious concession speeches I have ever heard and his ugly conduct in the days since shed much light on a person who lacks character.

Right after the Iowa vote, the conventional wisdom was that Gingrich would stay in the race simply out of spite for Mitt Romney and to do whatever he could to bring him down. Since Gingrich has the endorsement of New Hampshire's influential conservative Union Leader newspaper, he basically had an obligation as well to stay in the race for them. However, as he falls nationally and in New Hampshire to the benefit of Rick Santorum, it has the effect of helping Romney after all.

Still, Gingrich has now gone back on his long-standing pledge to only run positive ads, by now attacking Romney, as he has been doing in some seriously over the top and increasingly personal ways. I do not think that is going to help Gingrich get anywhere. He openly talked about how he was willing to team up with Santorum in an effort to double team Romney on the campaign trail (which is basically what John McCain and Mike Huckabee did four years ag0) but Newt's well documented lack of discipline came into play as the week wound up as he was quick to break the alliance with Santorum declaring the former Pennsylvania partner the "junior partner" in their relationship both historically and at the present. Needless to say, Santorum took issue with that, and all of this is of course good news for Mitt Romney.

I think Gingrich and Santorum will have a tight battle for third place in New Hampshire, with Huntsman perhaps not that far behind. While the former Speaker may have some advantages in South Carolina that Santorum, I think he will probably finish fourth in New Hampshire, and either he will push on out of pure ego, or he will realize that he has no chance (even if just to stick it to Romney) and drop out.

Ron Paul often talks about returning the U.S. to the gold standard, but in Iowa, it was only the bronze medal standard for the Texas Congressman who finished about four percentage points behind the two at the top. This was despite the belief held by many (and seen in some early entrance polls) that Paul could actually win the Caucuses. However, I think we saw some people who might have been prepared to vote for him in Iowa change their mind at the last minute (perhaps after hearing some goofy pro-Paul speech at the caucus by some kid with a nose ring).

Paul will finish either second or third in New Hampshire on Tuesday and I still think it will be second. His true supporters remain devoted, despite a pro-Paul SuperPac running an ugly ad against Jon Huntsman this week in New Hampshire, in which the Paul opponent was attacked for things including the adoption of his Chinese daughter. Even Paul had to denounce it.

The Paul candidacy remains well organized and pretty vocal in going after Gingrich and especially Santorum as of late. Leading the charge lately is the candidate's son, freshman U.S. Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky (whom we will likely see run for President in 2016). He has done much to question the conservative bona fides of Santorum and some others, but I note with much interest that Paul and his campaign are not going too much out of their way to try to stick it to Mitt Romney.

Needless to say, the results in Iowa turned out to be about as close as you can get, and for years there will be urban legends about miscounted votes, etc., and who "really" won, but the official word is that Rick Santorum finished in second place, just eight votes behind Mitt Romney. That is a big development and a huge opportunity for Santorum, who was on nobody's radar a couple weeks ago, but still, it would have been exponentially better for him if he could have found a way to get a handful of more votes and actually get the headlines nationally of an Iowa win.

Right after Iowa, national pundits began speculating on just how much growth potential there was for Santorum in New Hampshire and beyond. Many, who might have a vested interest in keeping the nomination battle alive as much as possible, thought that Santorum's mix of social conservatism and what they viewed as a focus on blue-collar economic populism could play well i the Granite State, similar to how Pat Buchanan shocked the establishment and the front-runner with his win there in 1996.

In my view though, Gingrich and Paul being in the race are going to prevent Santorum from really surging as much as possible. To have his campaign be viable in South Carolina, he absolutely has to finish ahead of Gingrich on Tuesday, and I think, largely because of media attention and Newt's behavior, he will do so narrowly, but I think he is probably going to come in third in New Hampshire, behind Ron Paul, and that will look like backwards progress to many Republicans across the country.

Santorum has long been a champion of conservative social issues (and I admire him for much of that), and while that might have been a big asset for him in Iowa, it is likely to not be so in New Hampshire. Many controversial things said by Santorum over the years are being talked about and that is going to distract from the message he needs to present himself as the main alternative to Romney. I will say though that I think Santorum likely got a whole lot of late deciding votes in Iowa on the basis of a story that got some play the night before.

Back in 1996, the Santorums tragically lost their son hours after childbirth, and they decided to briefly bring his body home so that his young siblings would understand that they had a brother who died. Liberal media figure Alan Colmes brought this up and mocked the Santorums for the episode, though he later apologized to the Senator. This is one of those cultural issues that greatly divides people. A bunch of people will consider what they did in their grief to be absolutely bizarre, while others (and I basically include myself) think that others have no right to criticize their actions during such a horrible time in their life. I think Santorum won a lot of late deciding Evangelical votes in Iowa from those who respect what he did and were appalled by attacks against him for it. In some ways, Santorum owes Colmes a thank you card.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney spent millions of dollars in Iowa, a ton of time in the state, and at times had significant polling leads. When it was time to vote though, he received the support of 25% of caucus goers, and came in second place, nine percentage points behind the winner.

This cycle, Romney spent far less on the state in terms of money, time, and professional staff, never really had a lead in the polls, had no big name endorsements in the state, and once again received 25 percent of the vote (which has been mentioned much by his detractors). However, it was just enough for a victory on a roller coaster Caucus night where the vote total was shockingly close. After this election year ends, political junkies may be able to afford to look back in amazement on how just close eight votes really is in such a big Presidential event.

Last week, I talked about how lucky Mitt Romney had been in 2011, and his new year got off to the same start. He really did not need to win the state per expectations, but no matter how narrow, the headlines of a win and the perception of "inevitability" are his friend, at least for now. As mentioned, he is going to need a flak jacket the next few days on the trail, but is still widely expected to easily win New Hampshire, and while others will claim that whatever he does win by will not be that impressive and that it was a foregone conclusion anyway, going two for two will still be a huge deal, and will give him a boost going into the historically frontrunner- friendly South Carolina Primary.

A lot of eyes were probably opened yesterday when polls were released showing Romney maintaining a large New Hampshire lead, but more significantly, also ahead in South Carolina, some by a solid margin.

While the media and the Democrats and many on the right would prefer a longer contest, I think Romney is well on his way to wrapping this up early. First things first though, and minus a major gaffe in the debates this weekend, I think he will top 40 percent during his New Hampshire win on Tuesday and that should be enough for a solid double digit win.

Of course, another candidate will also win both Iowa and New Hampshire this month, and that is Democrat Barack Obama, who like Romney also finished a disappointing second in the Granite State four years ago. The presumed Democrat nominee is gradually getting more and more into campaign mode, and the controversial recess appointments he made this past week were very much evidence of the kind of campaign the White House will be running.

Democrats met in Iowa this Tuesday, an important swing state, in numbers extremely smaller than the Republicans and what they saw four years ago. The incumbent addressed the party faithful via a video message, which was shockingly unimpressive in terms of the visuals and professionalism of the remarks. Obviously, it would have been impossible to compete with the Republicans on the night, but the Obama video was so unimpressive, I really cannot imagine why it ever was even considered. Quite a difference from the lofty "hope and change"rhetoric which captivated many across America four years earlier to the very night.