Saturday, February 18, 2012

Race for the White House

Since early January, the Republican primary and caucus contests have been coming fast and furiously, but we are now in what is effectively a two week bye period before Arizona and Michigan vote on February 28. After that, March will bring a flurry of contests from coast to coast, including "Super Tuesday."

With the campaign in a bit of a holding pattern, we are basically where we were last week, with Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney battling it out for an advantage, while a former supposed front-runner like Newt Gingrich continues to lose steam and becomes more of an afterthought.

What happens a week from this upcoming Tuesday is expected to have a major impact on the states to follow as well as the national polls. The momentum that Santorum has built as the new consensus "anti-Romney" has continued to be seen nationally and in many upcoming states. The media continue to portray him as a serious contender for the nomination, despite his severe deficit to Romney in terms of money and organization.

Santorum does not seem to be putting forth much effort into Arizona, which is a winner take all state that is still likely to be won by Romney, who maintains the overall delegate lead. Thus, the real battleground next week will be in Michigan, the state where Romney was born and raised and where his father served as Governor. Four years ago, he pulled off a hard-fought come from behind win over John McCain, the 2000 Michigan Primary winner, in a victory that for the time being saved his campaign. With that history, Romney was expected to romp to a win once again, but over the past week, polls have shown Santorum moving ahead in the Midwestern battleground, either by a small or solid margin. Unlike Arizona, delegates will be awarded proportionally, so more than one candidate will be able to add to their totals.

It would indeed be a terrible embarrassment for the native Michigander to lose the state, but if he does manage to win it, it could once again put him in a commanding position in regards to capturing the nomination. The two candidates are publicly taking different approaches. Despite his lead in the polls, Santorum is attempting to lower expectations by saying he expects to finish a strong second. Despite being down in the polls, Romney (perhaps to the chagrin of his campaign team) all but guaranteed victory in the state next week.

Mitt Romney now has the support of Michigan's Governor, as well as many other political heavyweights in the state, but Santorum has already scored impressive showings in other midwestern states, due in part to a greater appeal to social conservatives and more downscale, blue collar voters than what typically composes Romney's base. The Wolverine State has a large, organized anti-abortion movement which would seemingly gravitate towards Santorum. Additionally, it is very important to keep in mind that Michigan has an open primary and Democrats may very well cross over to participate, during a time when there is not a battle in their own party.

Back in 2000, an organized effort was made to get Democrats to vote in the Republican Primary for John McCain in an attempt to weaken or embarrass then GOP frontrunner George W. Bush. Eight years later, the liberal Daily Kos blog encouraged votes for Romney in the primary, and now, they, and perhaps many others, will have motivation to vote for Santorum in order to try to harm Romney. The conventional wisdom among most is still that Romney would be a far stronger opponent against Barack Obama and Republicans may reap what was sowed four years ago by radio host Rush Limbaugh who spoke daily of an "Operation Chaos" when after the GOP had its nominee, Republicans were instructed to take Democrat ballots to vote for Hillary Clinton in an effort to prolong the race and harm the delegate leader Obama. I thought that was a risky proposition then, as my own political party would one day be in the same circumstance, and that is indeed a very real possibility now in regards to political "retribution." There are certainly some legitimate Michigan Democrats and Independents who look at Romney's background and experience and believe he would make a good President, but a lot of outright liberals will have motivation to vote against him by casting support for a right-wing candidate they would never vote for in November.

My sense is that if Michigan were to vote this coming Tuesday, Santorum might win. However, overall support for the candidates there continue to be soft and I think much will change in the week to follow, especially with the money the Romney campaign and the non-affiliated SuperPAC will throw at negative Santorum ads, trying to drive up his negatives.

Despite the fact that the Romney campaign had yet to run a single negative ad in the campaign against Santorum (who had run such ads against both Romney and Gingrich), Santorum went on the air with a pre-emptive ad showing a Romney look alike, whom they called "Rombo" firing a large gun at cardboard cutouts of the former Pennsylvania Senator. While many think the ad is clever, I cannot think of any other ad in political history to feature violent imagery in regards to a candidate look alike in quite a way.

So in addition to battling over who has been more negative, the two leading candidates will fight over who is the better conservative. Romney is attacking Santorum over his votes in favor of increased government spending and earmarks. He will hope that the media or others are able to damage Santorum on cultural issues and how it would seriously effect electability in a general election.

While both candidates (and I) are social conservatives, Santorum's positions and rhetoric in regards to matters of personal, private behavior are things I consider to be off-putting in regards to his view of the role of government and individual freedom and liberty. This past week has featured much talk of the practicing Catholic Santorum's views in regards to birth control and contraception. The fact that he has spoken of those views in regards to public policy and how he would use the Presidency make it a legitimate issue. All of this goes far beyond the appropriate civic debate over the issue of abortion. Many people though, despite how poor the economy could be, will never vote for a candidate who would get caricatured as someone who wants to get in the way of their sex life. This would make Santorum a toxic nominee for Republicans in a general election, especially among women, in regards to how he would be portrayed as wanting to ban contraception.

There is certainly some irony in the concept that a Republican nomination may turn on a leading candidate being too far to the right on social issues, but for now, all this discussion of the "culture war" has likely been helping Santorum, as religious conservatives feel motivated to rally behind him. Thus, Romney is going to need to continue to focus on the non-conservative aspect of Santorum's legislative record on economics. When Santorum continues to attack Romney for being an unreliable and untrustworthy advocate for conservatism, it would be wise of the Romney campaign to keep pointing out that Santorum had endorsed him for the Oval Office in 2008 over other Republicans.

This coming Wednesday will feature a CNN debate from Arizona, after a bit of a hiatus from that season, and it may turn out to be the last primary debate of the cycle. The stakes will be high for all four candidates on the stage.

A week from now, I think the race in Michigan will appear to be extremely close. As a Romney supporter, I will be very anxious to see if he can pull out a victory there, as a two state February 28th sweep will net important delegates and momentum, which will make it harder for Santorum or anyone else to sustain a national campaign beyond Super Tuesday, which could cause Romney to effectively wrap up the nomination by the end of March.

If Santorum wins Michigan, the media, Democrats, and many anti-Romney types on the right will figuratively explode with glee and the talk will intensify in regards to "brokered conventions" and if somehow a Sarah Palin or a Jeb Bush will wind up being nominated after a Tampa/St. Pete floor fight, and all that talk will basically drive Romney supporters up the wall.

Regardless of what happens a week from this coming Tuesday, I think perspective is still needed. Romney will continue to be the delegate leader, and while a setback in Michigan may mean he will lose even more states on Super Tuesday and beyond, his campaign has reportedly been planning from Day One how to "win ugly", fighting it out in every contest all the way until late June.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves though.