Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Romney Back on Top

The Republican game of musical chairs continues. One thing remains: Mitt Romney has held on to his seat as a leading contender for the nomination in the last four years.

Newt Gingrich's rise and fall in the past month has several lessons to tell. First, no self-serving candidate would ever dare commit himself to a positive campaign again. Gingrich tried, and by refusing to counter fire with fire until recently, his poll numbers have dipped under a relentless barrage of negative ads coming from the Perry campaign and the Romney superPAC. What was particularly foolhardy about Gingrich's pledge to remain positive is that the anti-Romney vote had shifted to him precisely because he had the fire in the belly that conservatives felt was missing in Romney. Second, this is only the most recent proof that negative ads work. Of course, what is bad for the candidate is even worse for the country. But in the heat of the campaign, no one cares. And the heat is on for 2012. Third, Gingrich's failure to get on the Virginia ballot tells a cautionary tale to any candidate who tries to play a national strategy when elections in this country are won by an organized war on the ground, state by state. Gingrich's failure to get his organizational act together only reinforced the narrative that he was erratic and not up to the grueling task of a long campaign.

As Gingrich supporters in Iowa return to the Romney camp, others have gone to Rick Santorum and especially to Ron Paul. This should not be surprising. Ron Paul is the original article. A Tea Partier before the (modern) Tea Party who has spent the better part of his life advocating his libertarian, small government philosophy. Between Paul and Santorum, Paul is likely to finish nearer to the top in the long haul because he has an organization on the ground in more states and because 2012 will be about the economy, not culture. What the Republicans want more than anything else (other than to defeat Obama) is to overturn Obamacare, not protect human life or restore DADT in the military. Cultural issues, in any case, are not going to be salient in a primary race where everyone already agrees on them. This is one reason why all the ads Rick Perry are putting out touting his Christian faith are gaining so little traction. (They will be enough, however, to split the socially conservative vote between him, Michele Bachmann and Santorum so a Huckabee-like surprise victory as in 2004 is not likely.)

As a sign of his newfound confidence, Mitt Romney's closing argument in Davenport, Iowa, as the campaigns wind down for the New Year just days before the Iowa caucuses was focussed entirely on Joe Biden and Obama, not any of his rivals who are struggling for political relevance. Having survived the Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich insurgencies, Romney has proven his mettle to many who had doubted him before that he can take on Barack Obama. And that -- a competent candidate -- is what Republican primary voters are ultimately looking for.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Eleventh Hour Reconfigurations in the Republican Primary Race

With so many candidates moving in and out of frontrunner status in the Republican nomination race in the past months, it would appear that the winner of the game of musical chairs could simply be determined by when the music stops. And it stops on January 3, when the Iowa caucuses meet.

Whether or not there has been a method to the madness, with less than a month to go, it would appear that Newt Gingrich has a shot to the seat at the top. New polls show Gingrich overtaking frontrunner Mitt Romney in the key states of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Assuming Romney takes New Hampshire, Gingerich looks set to take three of the first four contests. He would then look like a formidable frontrunner by the end of January, if he doesn't slip.

Whether or not Gingrich will hold on to his lead will turn on whether and how much Democrats and the press decide to publicize his history of ethics violations and his prior experience as an alleged lobbyist. It will also depend on the effect of Gingrich's rather hasty acceptance of Donald Trump's invitation to host a debate for the Republican candidates, most of whom have wisely declined. Finally, Gingrich's fate rests on how soon the supporters of Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann join the Gingerich bandwagon. The longer the second-tier candidates stay on the campaign trail, the more likely Romney would be able to use his own considerable resources to fight on by a war of financial attrition.

It appears that the DNC ad on Mitt v. Mitt, timed to coincide with the implosion of the Herman Cain campaign, could be working. Meanwhile, a story just broke that electronic records of Romney's gubernatorial administrations were deleted when he left office. Coordinated by the White House or not, David Plouffe must be delirious with the possibility of a Gingrich nomination, but he's probably taking no chances. In Kansas this Tuesday, President Obama delivered his inaugural 2012 campaign speech, making clear that he anticipates that the central issue of the upcoming election to be the debate about the role and size of government. Why give this speech now? Perhaps because the White House hopes that Republicans who cannot forgive Mitt Romney for "Obamaneycare" will place their hopes on Gingrich.

And if that happens, Obama would be feeling a whole lot more secure about his seat at the Oval Office through 2016.