Saturday, January 14, 2012

Race for the White House

This past week saw some history as Mitt Romney became the first non-incumbent Republican candidate ever to sweep the first to contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. While the Hawkeye State Caucuses was a razor thin victory, the triumph in New Hampshire was far more overwhelming. The former Governor of neighboring Massachusetts received close to 40 percent of the vote in the multi-candidate field, with his nearest competitor 16 points behind.

Last week, I predicted Romney's opponents would go after him hard at the back to back debates over the weekend. On Saturday, they largely did not, leaving the punditry to declare Romney had escaped unscathed and unharmed, but they did go after him harder on Sunday morning, and some speculated over whether blood had been drawn or not. The actual results from New Hampshire gave little credence though to that reality.

To my great pleasure (and long-term stated anticipation), these victories have Romney on the precipice of the GOP nomination, even though the actual number of delegates elected have been very small. National polls are now showing Romney with a clear edge over his opponents with the air of inevitability steeping in. The next primary will occur a week from today when South Carolina, which has voted for the ultimate GOP nominee every cycle since 1980, and is by far the most Republican and conservative of the first three states heads to the polls. As the undisputed front-runner, Romney has at least a slight lead in all South Carolina surveys out this week, something that many (though not myself) thought would be impossible for the Mormon religion practicing, supposedly "moderate" from New England.

Indeed, if Romney wins South Carolina next Saturday, no matter how narrowly, it will become even more widely expected that he will be unable to be caught. Romney is in such good shape, where even a loss in South Carolina could quickly be countered by a solid victory in the next voting state of Florida, where polls show Romney with a huge lead.

Thus the stakes as they relate to stopping Romney are clearly high in the days before the South Carolina vote. Not a single candidate has dropped out after New Hampshire, leaving the task of one person catching the Governor even more difficult. Past primaries in South Carolina have often been down and dirty with allegations flying and rumors of dirty tricks abound.

So, while it is no surprise to see the other Republicans gunning for Romney, the way they have been doing so have to be of great surprise (and consternation) to many Republicans, even those who have been hostile to Romney. Some of the GOP also-rans this week have sounded more like people hanging around an Occupy Wall Street rally or perhaps right out of a Michael Moore "documentary."

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but I believe the specific attacks being leveled against Romney, as distressing as they should be to any loyal Republican or believer in free enterprise, will merely backfire against those making the charges, perhaps damaging their political credibility currently, and will make it easier for some conservatives to accept Romney as the hope of the party and the nation. There could also be an unanticipated longer term benefit for the prospective GOP nominee.

Let's briefly look at the week in review for the major Republican candidates, in order of their New Hampshire finish from last to first.

6. Rick Perry-

The Texas Governor is still for now hanging his hopes on the first votes from his fellow Southerners in South Carolina. He did not seriously contest New Hampshire as his one percent of the vote share attests to.

Last week, I wondered if Perry was only staying in the race in order to somehow make himself look better to Romney by helping split the opposition vote. That is clearly not the case, as Perry has been demagogic as anyone in engaging in over the top rhetoric against Romney's business history as an executive with Bain Capital. He has accused his opponent of being a "vulture capitalist" who unethically bankrupted specific companies in South Carolina to his own profit. Even conservative figures such as Rush Limbaugh, definitely no fan of Romney these days, who had long been pushing Perry as one of his favorites, took strong issue with that line of attack from Perry and Newt Gingrich. Fittingly, Perry also saw a major fundraiser defect to the Romney campaign over the anti-Bain comments.

Perry probably knows he is losing, and is content in doing so in an ugly fashion.

5. Rick Santorum-

Just a literal handful of votes away from winning Iowa, Santorum went into New Hampshire with great momentum, but finished in single digits, this time a small amount of votes behind Newt Gingrich. The bounce never materialized as Santorum was unable to develop a strategy to set himself up as the main viable alternative to Romney.

South Carolina is a state with far more Evangelicals and social conservatives, and there seems to be a late concerted effort on the part of some of them to back the ex-Pennsylvania Senator, but as of today, he is still polling behind Gingrich and perhaps also Ron Paul in the Palmetto State.

To his credit, Santorum was one of just two candidates (Paul being the other) to congratulate Romney on his New Hampshire win, and has also refused to join most of the others in bashing Romney's successful capitalist record in private industry. However, Santorum might have missed a big opportunity to impress conservatives by not being more bold in standing up to Gingrich and Perry on those attacks. Santorum did not need to defend Romney specifically, but he probably would have gotten a lot more props on the right if he would have positioned himself as the champion of free enterprise.

4. Newt Gingrich-

While he is now considered the front-runner for second place in South Carolina, a finish that even Gingrich himself has conceded would all but assure Romney becomes the nominee, the past week, starting in the New Hampshire debates have shown the former House Speaker, an historic figure in the annals of the Republican Party, to have either been a closet leftist all these years, or as someone in piques of anger is capable of saying virtually anything.

A short while back, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan might have nailed it when she referred to Gingrich as an "angry little attack muffin." It seems quite clear that Gingrich's animosity against Romney (which I believe he would hold for any politician who would have bested him in an election) is in a near kamikaze state. Gingrich has gone all out in attacking Romney's role at Bain Capital, with his super-pac putting together a 28 minute movie to that effect. In addition to those left-wing friendly talking points against Romney, which Gingrich claims would make him unelectable in a general election, he has also gone after Mitt from the right on cultural issues like abortion, and even the fact that the man speaks French.

I do not have enough time and space here to analyze everything that has gone on in regards to the attacks against Romney this week, but in typical Newtonian fashion, Gingrich has alternated behind pulling back from the rhetoric and seeming on the verge of admitting he made a mistake to then doubling down on them. The ex-Speaker may do a bit better in South Carolina than his relatively horrible showing in New Hampshire, but suffice to say, unless Romney is one heck of a forgiving soul, Gingrich may be on the outside looking in politically in many respects for a long time.

3. Jon Huntsman-

At some level, the bronze medal in New Hampshire, a state he campaigned in above all others could be considered good news and a "ticket to ride" to future contests for the ex-Ambassador to China, who bizarrely spoke Mandarin during one portion of the debate late Saturday, it was not really too good of a result.

Huntsman, despite coming in third, came in behind Mitt Romney by a large margin, and behind Ron Paul by a few points. He needed to do better than that, and now looks to have little potential for growth in South Carolina, despite New Hampshire Primary night speculation by MSNBC about how he could run to Romney's left, and pick up support with his millionaire father finally showing faith in his son by bankrolling Super-PAC ads. Very doubtful to say the least.

As a score-keeping Romney supporter, I might also mention the ways that Huntsman has been out of bounds the past week. In a completely politically devised debate rant last Sunday morning, Huntsman took strong personal issue with Romney, whom had the night before criticized Huntsman for representing the Obama Administration's China policies in Beijing and having once called the incumbent Democrat a "remarkable leader." Huntsman took that out of context by saying that Romney was attacking him for the service itself and stealing a line from John McCain (who I neglected to mention last week endorsed his former rival Romney) putting "country first."

Later on in the week, after Romney made comments in regards to how his vision of health care policy would allow consumers to "fire" a service that did not suit their needs in favor of a better one, Huntsman made a cheap shot comment about how Romney enjoyed firing people. Obviously, he grossly took Romney's comment out of context, and said something that we can all expect to hear the Democrats use against Romney or any Republican. I would venture to guess there is no love lost between the two distant cousins.

2. Ron Paul

He is still Ron Paul and that is troubling enough for me, but I have to concede that his New Hampshire vote total was impressive. I do not think he will do nearly as well in South Carolina, where libertarianism and anti-military spending policies are not exactly in vogue.

I will also credit Paul for being the most vocal in declaring the rhetoric by Perry and Gingrich in regards to Romney's business career as being completely out of line with everything conservatives are supposed to believe in.

The threat of Ron Paul abandoning the GOP and running third party continue to haunt many Republicans, but for a variety of reasons, I have a hunch that the outgoing 76 year old Texas Congressman does not want to do so. Instead, I think he intends to stick around in the race, focus on the smaller states that will hold caucuses, and try to win as many delegates as possible.

Then, things will get tricky, as the Paul and Romney teams will probably try to negotiate a deal for Paul to have influence on the convention platform committee and perhaps at the convention itself in exchange for a full endorsement of Romney. The concept of seeing Paul's name placed into nomination in St. Petersburg or having him address the convention in prime time (or at all for that matter) might be hard to stomach for a Republican loyalist such as myself, but it might prove to be a compromise worth making in order to do what is needed to unite the forces that want to defeat Obama.

1. Mitt Romney-

I have already covered much of his week, as my candidate looks to be in very good shape of becoming his party's nominee. The victory speech he gave early Tuesday evening was as strong as he has been in this campaign and I think the message he delivered from that podium is one that has to drive fear into the hearts of the White House political operation.

Of course Romney's comments the next day of "I like being able to fire people" was clearly taken out of context by his opponents in both parties for political advantage, and I would like to think Americans are smart enough to learn the facts and take issue with those who try to deceive them, but it does show that Romney is going to have to be pretty careful in regards to off the cuff things he says. I do not know if it qualifies as a "gaffe", since Romney's full statement makes it quite clear what he was trying to say, but it does give an opening to show the arguments the left will against him, as they will paint him as a heartless millionaire who takes glee in firing workers and strapping dogs to to the tops of cars.

With all the talk about Bain Capital, Romney can expect to have to address the issues and paint a positive picture (as he has now begun to do with paid tv ads) of his job creating private sector experience, in Monday's Fox News debate and in the days that follow before Saturday's vote.

Some say that these vulnerabilities are such that indicate that Romney is the wrong candidate to take on Obama. I completely disagree. I think America will come to accept him as being the successful job creator and "turnaround" specialist that he has been throughout his entire career. The arguments used by the likes of Gingrich and Perry the past week were completely out of line for any Republican in my view, and while this was probably not their intent, those attacks during the month of January may turn out to be a general election blessing for Romney as well as something that helps him continue to win primaries.

For certain, these very same arguments and claims will be made by Democrats in the general election, and they may even choose to quote Gingrich and Perry. However, it may already be old news by then, if Romney is able to put this issue to rest successfully while the primaries are still technically on.