As the presidential debate season continues, it is becoming clearer that Governor Rick Perry’s sudden rise in the polls after the Iowa Straw Poll has been a “bubble.” Once again, former Governor Mitt Romney seems about to take the lead in the polls, even as he already leads in many vital state polls. More importantly, he has seemed strong in the debate confrontations with Mr. Perry, and maintained the stage presence of someone in charge. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who herself enjoyed a brief “bubble” rise in the polls lading up to her win of the Iowa Straw Poll, has faded not only in public opinion surveys, but in the public policy arena as well. The departure of Ed Rollins from an active role in her campaign was an ominous sign.
The debates have also produced two other winners. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich continues to be the most impressive GOP debater, producing some of the warmest and most positive responses from debate live audiences. His reputation as the brightest candidate has been reinforced, but his desire to be “the comeback kid of 2012? is hindered by earlier campaign mistakes, weak campaign funding, and a bias (unfounded) that he is either too old or a figure from the past. Herman Cain has injected a vivid personality into the debates, and his business experience has enabled him to make many cogent comments that do not have the usual “political” veneer. But Mr. Cain has a small campaign organization and little money to transform his positive debate persona into a major candidacy.
One more time, we hear rumors of former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska or current Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey entering the contest, but it is late in the game. It might be possible, as I have suggested, for Mr. Christie to become a force in the campaign, provided he had the campaign funds and the time to spend introducing himself to voters nationally, but time is running out as we approach the Iowa caucus early next year, and the end of the most important part of the debate season.
This leaves us with the perception that Mr. Romney is beginning to pull away for the nomination. Of course, until we have actual voter results in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Florida, any judgment remains speculative. But the fact remains that Mr. Romney has so far seemed to run an almost flawless early campaign. Even in 2008, when he was the runner-up to John McCain, Mr. Romney looked the part, but now in 2011, he more and more sounds the part. He has handled the challenges of Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry with self-confidence and aplomb. He is very well-funded, and so far is easily winning the contest of endorsements from Republican officials across the nation. His rivals, when they challenged him in the debates, have found him to be a quick and tough opponent.
So what are the Mr Romney’s real drawbacks at the stage of the nominating campaign? They appear to be the same drawbacks that plagued him in 2008, and at the outset of the 2012 campaign. His seemingly more moderate record as governor of Massachusetts has not excited the increasingly conservative (and Tea Party) Republican base. But that base produced the Bachmann and Perry “bubbles,” and most Republicans of all political stripes seem to place the highest priority in defeating President Obama’s re-election. Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion has often been cited as a political problem, especially in the South, but again, most conservatives are unlikely to vote for Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney. Then there is danger that if Mr. Romney were nominated, a third party conservative would run and dilute his vote. The dilution, in that case, might happen, but the result would be the re-election of Barack Obama, a result few if any conservatives want. Finally, some consider Mr. Romney’s long business experience to be primarily limited to “turnaround ” situations, and not to the general management of government.
This latter criticism could be, however, Mr. Romney’ greatest strength. As the United States economy continue to sink, as unemployment remains high and chronic, as American power and influence continues to wane around the world, it might seem that a “turn-around” expert is just what the country needs.
In January, 1992, Governor Bill Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination seemed stalled. He had been the frontrunner, but many in his party thought he had too many political drawbacks to successfully challenge incumbent President George H.W. Bush. After the New Hampshire primary, however, Mr. Clinton asserted he was the “comeback kid,” and the rest in history.
If indeed Mr. Romney holds off the challenge of Mr. Perry, after doing the same to Mrs. Bachmann’s challenge, he would have made his own comeback. Much would take place between then and election day, and anything can happen, but as matters are going now, there may be a powerful appeal that could be made for a leader in 2012 who would turn America’s problems around.