DES MOINES - The latest Republican presidential debate, a contentious
one in the Iowa capital less than four weeks from the Iowa first-in-the-nation
caucus on January 3, took place as the long-forming contest began to take
some discernible shape across the nation.
As already reported, new GOP frontrunner Newt Gingrich, surging in virtually
every state poll, east and west, north and south, was attacked pointedly by
his rivals, as he has been attacked in the media, and by old friends and foes,
over the past two weeks. So far, he has handled himself well, and remained
apparently not seriously wounded. In fact, his surge continues in spite of the
attacks. He is also experiencing some luck (a not inconsequential factor in
almost every successful presidential campaign) in that the most noted miscue
in the debate was not his, but by the previous frontrunner Mitt Romney when
he casually bet Rick Perry $10,000 to prove an allegation the Texas governor
made about him. One more time, Mr. Gingrich seemed to be judged the debate
winner by the media. Only one more major debate with all the candidates
remains until January 3.
Behind the setting of the debate at Des Moines' Drake University campus,
both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns were furiously playing catch-up
in on-the-ground organization, an important factor for success in this
caucus state. Mr. Romney was well-organized in 2007-08 in Iowa when he
competed against and lost the caucus (to Mike Huckabee), and thus has had
an easier time restarting his campaign at the precinct level in 2011-12. His
is the only urban Des Moines headquarters, located on Ingersoll Avenue near
the city center. All the other candidate offices are located in the city's suburbs,
including Urbandale where Mr. Gingrich has just set up shop. Based on my
many presidential cycles covering Iowa, it would appear that both campaigns
will be near-fully operational by caucus night. In Mr. Romney's case, he has the
funds, and seasoned supporters in place. Mr. Gingrich is benefiting from his
intense surge here and seemingly everywhere else. The Romney campaign
seems to have the advantage on paper, but it is difficult to measure the impact
of Mr. Gingrich's surge, especially if he can maintain it until January 3.
Nor should the well-organized campaigns of Michele Bachmann and Ron
Paul be ignored. Rick Perry has a serious effort here, as well, but he has seemed
to have lost much ground since his "bubble" appeared to burst during the
debates following his late entry into the race. Rick Santorum, as perhaps the
most conservative candidate (along with Mrs. Bachmann) in the race, also has
a notable following here, and may well do better than the expectation created
by his poll numbers. Mrs. Bachmann seems likely to do better than her poll
numbers, as she pulls out all political stops to survive past Iowa.
Jon Huntsman has not competed here, and did not appear in Saturday's
debate. He is putting everything he has into New Hampshire where he admits
he has to finish a strong third (behind Romney and Gingrich, but clearly
ahead of Ron Paul). Herman Cain once enjoyed a surge of his own in Iowa,
but has suspended his campaign, and is no longer making campaign
Iowa has a particular character that includes many evangelical voters, farmers,
and urban conservatives. There are major urban liberal areas, including Des
Moines, Iowa City (home of my graduate school alma mater, the University
of Iowa), as well as many farm communities in northwestern Iowa, but the
Republican voter in the Hawkeye state has become increasingly conservative
since the 1970's when its presidential caucus was inaugurated.
A libertarian populist (and isolationist) faction exists here, and this has fueled
the Ron Paul campaign which did well in the past two straw polls and in the
2008 caucus itself. Mr. Paul could win here on January 3, but the voter
configuration in Iowa that makes that possible exists almost nowhere
else, and a Paul victory on January 3 would probably make Iowa much less
relevant to the GOP presidential contest than Republican leaders would
prefer. Media attention would then focus on who came in second, and who
was ahead of whom.
The Iowa race is now engaged in full. TV and radio ads will flood the airwaves.
Allegations will fly back and forth. In the unseeded corn fields of this
midwestern state, all is quiet, preparing for the cold winter before the next
planting season. In the political fields in Iowa, however, activity is increasing
and the heat is rising.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.