I just returned from almost two weeks in Florida where the next
primary will be held in the contest for the Republican nomination
for president. In the rapid up-and-down performance of the leading
GOP candidates, Mitt Romney seems to have pulled ahead to a
comfortable lead over his major remaining challenger, Newt Gingrich,
in the opinion polls just prior to the voting on January 31.
Only a month ago, such a prospect was viewed as the likely final
electoral episode of the 2012 GOP nominating campaign. After
winning Iowa and New Hampshire, and leading in South Carolina,
it was then thought that Mitt Romney would be the presumptive
nominee of his party.
What happened subsequently, however, has shaken this presumption.
First, Rick Santorum, following a recount of the Iowa caucus ballots,
was declared the winner in Iowa. Perhaps this has little substantive
meaning, but in the words of Mr. Romney, "A win is a win." Second,
Newt Gingrich, following stunning debate performances in South
Carolina, came from behind to win the state's primary by 13 points.
Third, Mr. Romney, who had been rarely attacked by his rival previously,
became a target on issues of his work as CEO at Bain Capital, and for his
failure to make public his tax returns.
Now, with South Carolina in the past, Mr. Romney has provided his most
recent tax returns, defended his record at Bain Capital while accusing his
attackers of betraying conservative principles, and counterattacked Mr.
Gingrich again (as he did in Iowa) with tough ads and comments. Whereas
Mr. Romney has seemed on the defensive in South Carolina, it is Mr.
Gingrich who seems to be spending too much time defending himself in
And so it goes. First Romney, then a succession of poll "bubbles" for
Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich and even Rick
Santorum. Then Romney again. Then Gingrich again. And now Romney
again. Is there any reason to think this is the end of the contest?
While four straight wins for Romney might have overwhelmed the field
and made his nomination inevitable, the present "standings" do not
indicate inevitability. The winner of Florida wins all 50 delegates, but
Florida, one of the largest states, originally had 100 delegates before it
was penalized for scheduling its primary so early. Mr. Romney will also
win all of Virginia's 40 delegates because most of his opponents,
including Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum failed to qualify for the
Virginia primary ballot. But more than 40 state primaries and caucuses
remain, and most of the national delegates have not been chosen. "Super
Tuesday" is about a month away, and many of its primaries are Southern
states where Mr. Gingrich might yet do well (as he did in South Carolina).
A campaign calendar with a contest not dissimilar to Barack Obama vs.
Hillary Clinton in 2008 is quite possible.
Why is this so? It is so because the the 2012 contest for the GOP
presidential nomination has become a contest between the basic factions
of the Republican Party. Mr. Romney, it has become obvious, is the
candidate not only of the Republican "establishment." but of the more
moderate wing of the conservative base of the party. Not all of these
were necessarily his supporters at the beginning of the contest. Mr.
Gingrich has become the candidate of most of the grass roots
conservative wing of the party, including many in the powerful "Tea
Party" movement. Not all of these were necessarily his supporters at the
campaign outset, but with the other major conservative candidates
withdrawing, he has received most of their support. Mr. Santorum, who
is now a distant third in the race, continues to receive a large share of the
religious and social conservative vote, but it remains to be seen how long
he can stay in the race without sufficient funds and organization. Ron
Paul, the only other remaining candidate, is in fourth place, and seems to
be stuck at a popular vote that is under ten percent. He occasionally does
better than that, especially in caucus states, but he has no reasonable
chance to win the nomination.
So it will be two-person race, with two other and trailing candidates, from
now until June. One of the two leaders is likely to clinch the nomination
by then, as Mr. Obama barely did over Mrs. Clinton in 2008. but the
Florida results, even if Mr. Romney wins by double digits. are not likely
going to resolve the GOP nomination.
High profile Republicans associated with grass roots conservative and
"Tea Party" voter sympathies, including Fred Thompson, Herman Cain,
Rick Perry, and perhaps most significantly, Sarah Palin, have endorsed
Mr. Gingrich. Leading conservative voices such as Sean Hannity and
recently, Rush Limbaugh, have defended him. Each of them have
reinforced the notion that Mr. Gingrich is being unfairly attacked by the
"Republican establishment." The "Tea Party" supporters played a significant
role in the landslide victories of Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.
In order to win in 2012, Republicans need these grass roots voters and
activists to be enthusiastic not only for their presidential candidate, but for
their congressional candidates as well.
Mr. Romney remains the favorite to win the nomination. Republicans are
still favored to keep control of the U.S. house of representatives and win
control of the U.S. senate. The economy, seemingly enjoying a short-term
upswing, remains problematic, especially its chronic unemployment. World
economic and political conditions remain perilous. Yet none of this leads
automatically to Republican victory in November. Mr. Romney needs to
gain the trust, as well as the enthusiasm, of his party base and of more
independent voters if he is to prevail.
Newt Gingrich may have more political lives than the proverbial cat. His
challenge in 2012 touches the heart of the conservative impulse in American
politics, and in the desire, across party lines. for dramatic change in the way
government does business.
The true secret in modern American presidential politics is the story a
candidate tells voters. That story includes his or her past, but it vitally also
tells his or her story of the future. Part of the reason Mr Gingrich keeps
coming back, with all of his personal "baggage" and controversies, is not just
that he is the best debater. It is also because he is, as was Mr. Obama in 2008,
a superb storyteller.
The Romney campaign, and its candidate, has to learn to tell a better story if
they want the keys to that certain residence on Pennsylvania Avenue next
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.