Saturday, January 21, 2012

O.K. What's Next?

The results are in from the South Carolina primary, and Newt Gingrich
has won a very large victory over Mitt Romney, the man who had led in this
state's polls by double digits only a week before.

Although it might be characterized as an upset victory because the
turnaround was was so rapid, it was not unexpected after the former
speaker scored clear victories in the two televised debates that were held
in that last week. Recent polls had telegraphed a sudden reverse in Mr.
Romney's numbers downward, while Mr. Gingrich's were rising even
faster. In the end, Mr. Gingrich won by 12 points over Mr Romney, 23
points over Rick Santorum, and 27 points over Ron Paul.

The worst news for Mr. Romney was that he lost to Mr. Gingrich in almost
every demographic category, and the few he did win were by small margins.
Mr. Gingrich has apparently carried all of the state's congressional districts
and all of the state's delegates to the national Republican convention. Each
of the four candidates have said they will continue on to Florida, and
then to the primary and caucus states that follow.

In this, the most volatile nomination contest in memory, anything can still
happen, but it would seem that the race is now down to Mr. Gingrich and
Mr. Romney. In spite of the loss, Mr. Romney still has the upper hand on
paper. He has much more money, much more organization, and a much
larger staff of campaign senior staff and advisers than Mr. Gingrich. Dr. Paul
has a substantial fundraising base and a national grass roots organization.
He is expected to remain in the race until one of the other candidates
clinches the nomination. Mr. Santorum, who won the Iowa caucus narrowly
(but it was decided almost three weeks after the balloting), has not been
able to follow his surprise early success with much more than some
increased campaign contributions and endorsements from some
conservative leaders and groups. In the states that follow Florida, Mr.
Santorum will have to begin winning again, or his funds will dry up and he
will continue to be overshadowed and outpolled by Mr. Gingrich. Rick
Perry gamely went to South Carolina after doing poorly in Iowa and
New Hampshire, but soon found out that his moment in the sun had
passed, and had to retire from the field. Mr. Santorum faces a similar
prospect unless he can do much better than he has in the past two

Mr. Gingrich has now made three major political comebacks in his
recent political career. The first took place over a dozen years following
his resignation as speaker, and from the Congress, in 1998. He left then
under a cloud of controversy, and went into a private public life, giving
speeches, serving as a consultant, and founding and leading non-profit
public affairs corporations. He made a lot of money, and managed to
keep himself in the public eye. By the time the 2012 presidential election
had begun, he had recovered enough stature to be a major candidate.
After carelessly criticizing a GOP congressional leader, however, and
when most of his paid staff left him, his campaign virtually collapsed in
early 2011. But after a series of remarkable debate performances
between then and the beginning of the caucus/primary season, Mr.
Gingrich's poll numbers began to soar and even exceeded Mr. Romney's
lead as well as the other candidates. The opening of voting, the Iowa
caucus, proved to be a second disaster for Mr. Gingrich, especially after
he was made the target of a great many ads by some of his rivals,
including Mr. Romney, bitterly attacking him. As a result, he trailed
the field badly in Iowa and New Hampshire, and was considered
finished in the contest.

During this period, five of the nine major candidates, Tim Pawlenty,
Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry
withdrew from the race. Conservatives who found Mr, Romney
unacceptable had to either coalesce around another candidate before
South Carolina, or face the fact that the former Massachusetts governor
would have so much momentum, he could not be prevented from
winning the nomination. It was in this context that Mr. Gingrich made
his third major comeback.

Newt Gingrich arouses strong feelings, even in his own party. He is said
to have much political "baggage" arising from personal and political
controversies in his past, and this, it is alleged, makes him unelectable
in a general election against President Obama. His past, however,
seemed to be ignored by South Carolina voters. It may not be ignored
in Florida or other primaries and caucuses which follow, but if it is,
and his momentum continues, he will likely take this race all the way to
the GOP convention in Tampa, or until Mr. Romney (or another
candidate) secures enough delegates to secure the nomination.

Mr. Romney now faces the most critical moments in his long-time
efforts to win the Republican nomination for president. He came in
second in 2008 to John McCain, but emerged as the frontrunner in 2012.
He now has by far the most endorsements of any GOP candidate,
including one from Mr. McCain. It is fair to say that he is the choice of
most who make up the Republican establishment. (It is quite ironic that
his major rival now is a former speaker of the house of representatives,
someone formerly considered a major leader of that establishment.)
Protecting his apparent lead, doing better than expected perhaps in the
first two voting states, Mr Romney has seemed overly cautious, and his
rivals seemed to attack each other more than criticizing him. But after Mr.
Gingrich soared briefly into a lead in the polls before Iowa, Mr. Romney
and his superPAC (which he did not directly control) played hardball
in their ads, as did the other candidates, against the former speaker.
This was intended to deflate his political "bubble" and it succeeded.
Mr. Gingrich, who had urged all his rivals to focus their attacks on Mr.
Obama and not on each other, reacted furiously, and even though he
might have directed his own attacks against all of those who had attacked
him, he chose to single out Mr. Romney. As is well-known, many find
attack ads distasteful (Ronald Reagan established an eponymous rule
that Republicans should not criticize each other), but it is equally
well-known that they often work. Mr. Gingrich then focused his attacks
on Mr. Romney on his record at Bain Capital. This, in turn, provoked a
storm of protest from many Republicans, who considered the tactic
"anti-capitalist" and unbecoming from a conservative. Nontheless, Mr.
Romney has so far not seemed to satisfy the questions raised in these
attacks, and combined with an unexplainable refusal to release his tax
returns, has seemed in recent debates to be defensive and weak.

The next primary, Florida, should provide Mr. Romney with an
opportunity to change his approach. Whether he has the personal skills
to do this successfully remains to be seen, but there seems to be much
agreement by observers that he must try. Now with some momentum
of his own, and with apparent major financial backing, it will also
be a significant opportunity for Mr. Gingrich to expand his own effort
and presentation. Finally, it may be Mr. Santorum's last practical
chance to reassert himself into the contest.

As it was becoming conventional wisdom that Mr. Romney might win
South Carolina and become unstoppable for his party's nomination,
so now that this scenario is apparently no longer viable, and a new
conventional wisdom has quickly arisen that the battle for the
Republican nomination will go on for a long time, possibly even to
the GOP convention. This commonplace, however logical, may soon
also be refuted. With only two, or even possibly three, major
candidates left, one of them could quickly establish a winning streak
in a series of primaries, and end the race sooner than expected.

This is the kind of political year it is. We just don't know what will
happen next.

Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.

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