Saturday, January 28, 2012

Race for the White House

This past week has been another example of how dramatically events can change in Presidential politics.

Last Saturday, Newt Gingrich's sizable win the South Carolina primary was, as I expected it to be, greatly recognized in the media and the blogosphere as the kind of event that could indicate that the GOP race was headed for a very long and drawn out battle. There was talk about a broken convention and compromise nominees or late entrants (such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels who on Tuesday had delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address.) Pundits also spoke as if second place finisher Mitt Romney had suffered a fatal campaign setback from which he may never recover. Much was made about how conservative votes in South Carolina and elsewhere had refused to accept him and that he amazingly ran behind Gingrich on the question of electability. Romney's problems were chalked up to supposedly poor debate performances in South Carolina and the issue of having not released his tax returns.

As an avid Romney supporter myself, I even started to contemplate scenarios in which Romney might not be able to surpass Gingrich's surge in time to win a victory in Florida (which is of course a southern state) and how he could ultimately rebound in February and win a protracted battle as the primaries moved nationwide.

However, things have stabilized (or changed, depending on how you look at it) so much that on this Saturday, we are back to the likelihood of Romney winning a solid win this coming Tuesday in the Sunshine State and the possibility of that victory making Romney the all but certain nominee. When polls in the middle of the week showed a very close race or Gingrich just slightly ahead of Romney, that might have looked like much better than expected good news for the former Speaker, but based on the buzz surrounding South Carolina and some early week polls, Romney supporters were thrilled just to look like they were still in the game. Now though, Romney looks significantly ahead.

Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will be on the ballot in Florida, but as the state is allocating delegates on a winner take all system, neither of them have much anticipation for a first place finish and have already started to think ahead, mostly to caucus states. In South Carolina, Santorum finished several points ahead of Paul. In Florida, the former Pennsylvania Senator had a decent week as far as debates were concerned and might have seen some supporters switch to him from Gingrich as the "anti-Romney alternative." That could be good news for Santorum of course, but ultimately even better news for Romney to see the opposition divide up once again.

As was the case in South Carolina, two debates this past week in Florida have had a major impact on the race. While they certainly benefited Gingrich in the Palmetto State, Romney got the best of the showdowns this week. After a debate Monday night on NBC in which the studio audience was instructed to not demonstrate their approval (even though it did happen slightly a few times), Gingrich complained about the stifling of free speech and said he might boycott any debates that did not allow applause. Of course, that would have to include what the Commission on Presidential Debates has planned for the general election.

A Thursday night debate on CNN did allow applause, but Gingrich found himself on the short end of the stick in that regard, as the night's big moments went to Romney, who forcefully took on his opponent at every turn, leading Gingrich to basically call for a truce during the debate because I believe he realized how badly Romney was cleaning his clock. The next day, the campaign which demanded that people be allowed to applaud, shamelessly claimed that the audience was stacked against them.

I could go on and on about how thrilled I am that this week has unfolded the way that it did. I was still generally confident but quite frustrated by what happened in South Carolina last Saturday and the first few days of the week. I expected Romney to turn it around, but it happened quicker and more substantially than most would have imagined. I think that demonstrates strong qualities both in the candidate and his political team that will serve them well, especially in the general election. Getting the tax returns out there this week (which showed that Romney paid over 40% of his income in taxes and charitable contributions combined) was a great way to stop being on the defensive. The issue of money donated to the Mormon Church was talked about, but not obsessively by the media.

Of course, the well funded Romney campaign was also able to very much hurt Gingrich on the airwaves in Florida, especially on the issue of the money received from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As to be expected, Gingrich fought back in harsh tones against Romney both on the stump and on the air, but was quite ineffective in making the case during the debates, which of course hurt the rationale of "a great debater" that had helped Gingrich to this point. Simply put, the tables were turned from one week to the next and from one state to the next in regards to which candidate spent the bulk of their time on the defensive.

The week is also noteworthy for discussion over Gingrich's grandiose plan to colonize the Moon by the end of his second term and all sorts of revelations of how Gingrich, who incessantly cites Ronald Reagan as an inspiration was actually quite critical of the Gipper at times during the '80s. Late in the week, the heavily visited Drudge Report website seemed to be on an all out mission to harm Gingrich and his campaign (and others such as Sarah Palin) has complained about a coordinated effort to take him down. There may never be proof of that, but there is believed to be ties between Drudge and Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades. If so, the Romney campaign quite effectively hurt their current chief opponent this week.

Gingrich is attempting to fight back against Romney by what I consider to be pretty trivial things such as taking a Democrat ballot to vote in a meaningless 1992 Massachusetts primary and perhaps slightly overreaching on an ad in which Gingrich referred to the "language of the ghetto", without specifically referencing Spanish, but having it be quite clear that is what he was referring to.

Just about every way Gingrich is trying to attack Romney is being used against him as Mike Huckabee is taking issue with Gingrich using clips of him attacking Romney from four years, and popular Senator Marco Rubio successfully forcing the Gingrich campaign to take down an ad in which Romney was referred to as "anti-immigrant." While Rubio has remained officially neutral (to the initial displeasure of Romney fans), his weighing in on behalf of the former Governor has done much to help and in a state with a significant number of Hispanic Republicans, the issues of ethnic politics this past week have seemed to favor Romney.

To summarize, it has been a strong week for Mitt Romney, who once again now looks poised to be the general election nominee, and after a particularly strong debate performance on Thursday, looks to many Republicans like someone who could be very tough for Obama to negatively define to the extent of a race being impossible to win.

However, Democrats are of course feeling good about watching a divisive GOP primary process unfold and I certainly cannot blame them for that. I believe the Republican Party will be able to unify itself before too long in order to take on Obama, but if I were a Democrat, I would have been doing cartwheels at the prospect of maybe getting to face Gingrich. It looks far less though today as if they will get to have that chance.

Obama, who will formally have a new Chief of Staff beginning the week, did deliver his State of the Union Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday night, and as to be expected, most liberals thought it was great, especially the appeals to populism and increased taxes on the wealthy, while most Republicans disapproved of large chunks of what they considered nothing more than a "campaign speech."

If Romney takes Florida by a decent margin and rolls through the contests in February, we may have a general election informally underway quite soon in which the lines of division will look even clearer.

While Obama (surprisingly) did not make any specific mention during the address, a moving portion of the evening was the presence of Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and nearly killed a little over a year ago. On Sunday, she had announced she would be stepping down from Congress to focus on her recovery. Every decent American, of all political stripes, has to admire her and wish her well.

Giffords may have been present in the House Chamber Tuesday night, but someone else was missing. On Monday, news came down that Republican Senator Mark Kirk (who holds Obama's former seat) had undergone surgery after suffering a major stroke while in his home state of Illinois. The Senator is expected to be away from the Capitol for some time but is expected to make a full mental recovery, while it is sadly likely that he will be left with some physical impairments.

This shocking story hit home for me even more so as I have been around Mark Kirk quite a bit for almost the past dozen years, as he was my Congressman before his 2010 Senate election. I have met and have had discussions with him on a number of occasions and have devoted much time to helping him get elected to both Houses of Congress. It is hard to believe that such a healthy and youthful looking man of 52 years old, who continued to serve in the U.S. Navy could suffer such an illness and have his life perhaps be permanently altered.

On Election Night 2010, I got to see Kirk deliver his victory speech up close and he was clearly relieved and thrilled to have won a brutal campaign and embark on a new professional chapter. His interest and expertise in foreign policy were serving the Senator quite well a year into his tenure, and I feel very bad for what he is having to face.

However, I have no doubt that the person who has fought so successfully in his life to get to where he is, including a bunch of really difficult elections, will show that same determination into taking on his recovery and returning to work for the people of Illinois. Mitt Romney, whom he endorsed not too long ago, will need him on his side, if he is President.