Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mitt & Newt Show

The frontrunner is by definition the messenger, but the party’s rank and file don’t think he believes the message. The guy in second place thoroughly believes the message, but the party’s rank and file don’t think he’s a good messenger.

That, in a nutshell, is the central dilemma of the Mitt & Newt Show, an extension of the long-playing political dramedy/reality series we’ve seen for six months. And it’s coming to a primary-ready state near you. Wherever “you” are.

The results of tonight’s Florida Primary were no surprise; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney flattened former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by 14 percentage points in the first primary that really reflects what the rest of the country looks like. What shapes up now is a battle of wills, a battle that’s likely to reveal, like nothing else can, what’s really animating these campaigns.

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There’s a degree of the personal in this quest for both of them. For Romney, the campaign is a chance to both avenge his father’s loss of the presidency in the crucible year of 1968, and to exorcise his own demons from his failed presidential bid in 2008.

It’s been a talking point for longer than it should have been: Romney’s win in Florida would All But Secure Him the Nomination. By this point, the script went, Mitt was expected to have everyone in line. The fact that Gingrich is spoiling the scenario by sticking to the principles of a bedrock conservative, and calling Romney’s own convictions into question, is a huge problem for Team Mittens.

Among other things, it’s giving Romney time to get into trouble, optically speaking.

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It’s early in the campaign season, but Romney’s already given us one of the choicest goofs we’re likely to see, a moment of comedy and something approaching pity.

At a campaign stop on Saturday in The Villages, Fla., Romney was speaking the words to “America the Beautiful.” Then at one point, deciding that speaking the words wasn’t enough, the frontrunner switches to singing. For a minute that felt like five.

There’s something sad about a singer calling for a sing-along moment and getting something other than spirited response from his audience. Many in the Romney crowd did sing, though, maybe more out of expedient duty to the moment than from any spasmodic outburst of nationalistic pride. By some acclimation of surprise, and maybe even horror, others seemed to watch Mitt in relative silence, pitying the shameless, patriotically oleaginous buffoon on stage before them. They seemed to tolerate him, like they might tolerate the pastor who farts in his own church.

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Their sense of obligation to the party overlooked the candidate’s shortcomings as a singer; his more important tone-deafness relates to the electorate he’s trying to lead. That tone-deafness extends to the truth of his main message, his alleged expertise Working in the Private Sector. According to various sources, the Romney campaign and the so-called SuperPACs that work independently on his behalf, ran $16 million in Florida TV advertising in the runup to the primary. For one conservative water carrier, that airtime was badly misused.

Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman and now the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a man with whom we differ on everything but the color of the sky, got it right on “Hardball” on Monday, when asked about the wisdom of spending that much money to attack an opponent, and nothing else.

“If you use the $16 million to say, ‘this is how I’m gonna save Medicare, this is how I’m gonna balance the budget, this is how I’m gonna get the troops home from Afghanistan — that helps. The problem here is you’ve got Mitt Romney running a campaign without meaning. Negative attack ads using Democratic ethics attacks against Newt Gingrich, and then he goes on the campaign trail, and his punch line is reciting the words to ‘America the Beautiful.’”

For Mr. Private Sector, this is apparently the best use of $16 million in Florida major-market airtime: not to craft a message and a vision people can get their hearts around, not to make yourself look even remotely presidential, but mostly to tele-bludgeon your opponent with old charges that scarcely register today.

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Gingrich’s problem is something else again. For Newt the Man of Sullied Honor, this is a very personal matter. Want proof? When he spoke to supporters after the Florida loss, he neither mentioned Romney by name nor conceded defeat — a protocol of modern campaign etiquette. Still smarting from the beating he took in the Florida TV ad market — Romney’s ads swamped Gingrich’s by a ratio of 65:1, and most of them negative — Gingrich has decided to settle accounts. Whatever it takes.

There’s vengeance behind the eyes of Newt Gingrich, not a generalized desire for familial vengeance, like the sense of mission Mitt has about fulfilling his family’s destiny, but a deeply personal quest for payback against the “Massachusetts moderate” whom Newt thinks would buy the presidential election if he thought he could.

And as much as anything else, for Newt Gingrich, there’s a hope of achieving a kind of vengeance against the great equalizer: the big clock. Gingrich is 68 years old, and the scorched-earth aspects of the campaign he’s already run, one of burning friends and enemies alike, won’t allow for a Next Time. Newt has a sense of total commitment to this campaign; he’s in it up to his short and curlies for the simplest reason there is: For Newt, there’s no tomorrow. This is his last hurrah and he knows it.

Samuel Johnson clearly understood Gingrich’s situation, in an expression of another kind of mortality: Depend upon it, sir: When a man knows his political career likely concludes with the end of his current campaign, it concentrates his mind, heart and soul wonderfully. For Newt Gingrich post-Florida, a formidable ego and a history as a political scrapper are now combined with that most dangerous trait of any animal, political or otherwise: that sense, when cornered, of having absolutely Nothing to Lose.

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And that’s the cast of the show yet to come. Oh, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are still formally, officially in the race, but not really. Santorum — a decent, principled candidate with moments of possibility — never really caught fire after Iowa, and Paul sounds more unhinged with every passing day.

No, it’s the Mitt & Newt Show for the foreseeable. These are the principals in the cage match that realistically starts tomorrow morning and ends, possibly, in Tampa, Fla., in August, with blood on the convention hall floor.

Whose blue blood will it be? Romney’s, Gingrich’s, or that of the Republican Party? Never has a cliffhanger had so many cliffs to be navigated.

Image credits: Romney: Via The Huffington Post. Newt and Calista Gingrich: Associated Press, via The Huffington Post.

Romney wins in Florida. Advantage: Obama

As expected, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday night, the first primary on the GOP campaign calendar held in a state that comes close to reflecting the nation's cultural and demographic diversities. Romney, having lately discovered his inner angry man, bested his only real challenger, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, by at least a dozen percentage points in a race that was called right after all polls closed.

With a blowout long-foretold now in the books, Romney lays more solid claim to being the presumptive Republican nominee. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are still in the race, finishing Tuesday in third and fourth place, respectively. But Gingrich assumes his most provocative role in the campaign season, having announced he intends to stay in the race through the bonanza of March 6, Super Tuesday. Part Lazarus, part Jake LaMotta, the pummeled, disliked former speaker of the House, left for dead more than once, vows to be still standin' when the campaign pulls into Tampa in August -- whether the party establishment likes it or not.

Read more at The Root

Image credit: Romney: via YouTube.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Newt's figment VIII: Shooting the moon

In recent days on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex, has reawakened his inner John F. Kennedy with a return to an idea that’s captured his imagination before — an idea that, flying as it does in the face of enormous economic challenges, is out of this world. Literally.

On Wednesday, at a campaign stop in Cocoa, Florida — site of next Tuesday’s Republican primary — Gingrich addressed supporters on the so-called Space Coast, reanimating a long-held dream, and playing to a crowd of former and current workers at the Kennedy Space Center, itself the location of historic triumphs and contemporary travail for the U.S. space program.

Never missing an opportunity to make a pitch tailored to local concerns, Gingrich sketched out his plan, starting with a tribute to the genesis of the modern space program, with John F. Kennedy’s colossal gauntlet throwdown in May 1961.

“It’s one of the great periods of developments in human history, and they just did it,” Newt said of the space pioneers.

“I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that it really is part of our destiny, and it has been tragic to see what has happened to our space program over the last 30 years …”

Newt said his idea for colonizing space would revive Americans’ sense of achieving something “big and bold and heroic.”

“I will as president encourage the introduction of the Northwest Ordinance for Space to put a marker down that we want Americans to think boldly about the future ...”

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," the former House Speaker said in adding flesh to the exotic bones of an idea to put Americans back on the moon by the year 2020. Newt also posited tourists honeymooning in low-Earth orbit, space factories making products, a rocket with enough power to advance our national manifest destiny to the planet Mars.

“I was attacked the other night for being grandiose,” Gingrich said. “I just want you to know: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright brothers going down to Kitty Hawk was grandiose. John F. Kennedy saying we'll get to the moon in eight years was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am an American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future.”

“Does that mean I'm a visionary? You betcha.”

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Gingrich watchers of long standing know this is nothing new. The former House Speaker, who admits to having embraced the science fiction of Isaac Asimov as a much younger man, is an old hand at new dreams.

In July 1981 Mr. Gingrich sponsored H.R. 4286, an ultimately unsuccessful bill loftily titled the National Space and Aeronautics Policy Act. The bill’s Title 4, covering "Government of Space Territories," “sets forth provisions for the government of space territories, including constitutional protections, the right to self-government and admission to statehood."

In his 1984 book, “Window of Opportunity,” a survey of Big Ideas, Gingrich ventures that "[a]mbient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness. Mirrors could be arranged to light given metropolitan areas only during particular periods, so there could be darkness late at night for sleeping."

And he told the World Science Fiction Convention in August 1986, that “If we’d spent as much on space as we’ve spent on farm programs, we could have taken all the extra farmers and put them on space stations working for a living in orbiting factories.”

There’s nothing wrong with having vision — as opposed to seeing visions. God knows we need more leaders with a sense of the future and how to get there. But Newt’s fanciful ideas have long had people pulling their chins — about the ideas and their source.

The author Christopher Buckley, reviewing various books of Newtonian cerebral motion for The New York Times in 1995, got it about right: “[I]t can be a little . . . weird when elected officials start talking like Jules Verne.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Romney's box

In a towering miscalculation of timing, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finally released his tax returns late Monday, a day before President Obama delivered a stunning, sterling State of the Union address that focused on the economic imbalance of most Americans’ income and the kind of income that made Romney’s tax returns possible.

If you haven‘t heard, Romney’s returns — the ones he swore up and down he wouldn’t release until April — revealed an income of $21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million in 2011, every penny of it derived from profits, dividends and investment interest. Not a dime came from actual wages.

According to the returns, released to The Washington Post, Romney paid a 13.9 percent tax rate, or $3 million, in 2010. His 2011 estimate is $3.2 million, which is about 15.4 percent, as he’s told reporters in recent days. Romney apparently has a Swiss bank account and foreign investments in Luxembourg, Ireland and the Cayman Islands. All told, the candidate's overall worth is estimated to be somewhere between $190 million and $250 million, and includes money from his previous relationship with Bain Capital, the private-equity asset strip-mining concern Romney founded in 1984.

We can be sure that, now that the Romneys’ ocean of wealth is out in the open, there’ll be a huge pushback within the campaign to take the issue off the table for discussion by the public and, certainly, the media. But Romney’s wealth problem goes beyond the reluctant disclosure of his taxes; his bigger challenge is to show how he can continue to self-identify as a populist in touch with the financial pain of the country he presumes to lead when his own financial house is, simply put, in another world from the people of this country altogether.

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In offering various policy prescriptions for the economy, Romney derides his critics as embracing “the politics of envy,” claiming that people are out to get him because he’s rich. He’s frequently sought to justify his work with Bain Capital by saying that, in a free-market economy, it may be necessary to lay off, say, 1,000 workers in order to save 3,000 jobs down the road.

Mathematically, it’s the sort of ends-justify-the-means, burn-down-the-village-to-save-it argument that seems at first blush to make sense. We’re led to believe it’s just part of the brutal process of business in the Private Sector.

But throughout this campaign, Romney’s shown a tone-deafness about the emotional impact of business’ rapacious tendencies toward ordinary wage earners, and how those tendencies are viewed in the public eye. The unforced error? He revels in the Darwinian aspect of his work at Bain, and its consequences, without much thought to the Dickensian perception of his work at Bain, how it looks to the American public. And presidential politics is nothing if not a matter of perception.

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You want tone-deaf? Consider how Romney blithely tossed out to reporters on Jan. 17 that the $374,328 he earned in speaking fees between February 2010 and February 2011 is “not very much,” at a time when that very much money would utterly transform any one of a preponderance of lives in the country he hopes to lead.

You want tone-deaf? Look at how the intricate aspects of Romney’s taxes — more than 500 pages stuffed with the exotica of investment vehicles in countries from Ireland to the Cayman Islands — run so counter to the tax-filing experiences of everyday people in America, people who sit at the dining room table with a year’s receipts and statements, praying that the bite from Uncle Sam won’t be too bad this year.

They can’t relate to Romney — they never could to start with; now, after the release of a tax return that’s the size of a small-town phone directory (and revealing personal assets equal to those of a small town), they really can’t relate to Romney. And presidential politics is nothing if not a matter of finding a candidate you can relate to as an ordinary American voter.

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There’s a gathering narrative that, for all his purported expertise in the Private Sector, Mitt Romney is also the unfortunate beneficiary of the public’s perception of the downside of a free-market economy — that, rather than taking credit for creating jobs, Romney is seen as responsible for (or certainly complicit in) the ruthless efficiencies that take jobs away. Right or wrong, his business acumen is defined — in the public eye, anyway — by what’s been lost or downsized, rather than by what’s been gained or enhanced.

This may be just a messaging problem or something more foundational to his campaign, but for now it’s clear there’s a fundamental disconnect between Mitt Romney and the populism he professes.

And there’s nothing to be done about this. There’s no way to spin or tweak this narrative because it’s basic  to what Mitt Romney is, and central to what he believes he brings to the 2012 presidential campaign.

So when Romney says (at the Jan. 19 CNN debate in Charleston, N.C.) that he’s “someone who has lived in the real streets of America,” it comes across as utterly laughable to most Americans, who know good and damn well that Mitt Romney’s feet never touched the sidewalks of the real streets of America — not until he decided to run for president, anyway.

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One reason why the whole tax-returns issue had been so problematic is because it ran counter to the narrative Romney assiduously promotes. He’s been screaming his Experience in the Private Sector from the rooftops since his campaign began, but one of the responsibilities of those in business is timely release of the documents that reveal the true status of a business.

Romney’s resistance to the tax returns’ release — by the unwritten law of campaign protocol (a law his father was instrumental in creating) a necessary thing to do — seems contrary to the behavior of someone with private-sector prowess. It suggests he’s trying to rewrite the rules of campaign tradition for the most expedient of reasons. Never mind the fact that it suggests he’s, well, hiding something.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Everlast: Newt Gingrich resets the Republican race

Fifteen years to the day after he was reprimanded by the House of Representatives, fined $300,000 for ethics violations and ushered from his post as House Speaker, Newton Leroy Gingrich defied the odds and the naysayers and won the South Carolina Primary, restarting the Republican presidential campaign.

Two years to the day after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United vs. FEC decision existentially equalizing corporations and human beings for purposes of political donations, Newt Gingrich celebrated a victory that Citizens United helped make possible.

Today, everything in an already ridiculous campaign completely changed. The man whose presidential bid many in the punditburo and the wider online commentariat (me included) had given up for dead or comic relief has made political history, crushing his blood rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is in deep trouble tonight.

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You can’t overstate the importance of what’s gone down. With Newt’s convincing 12-point victory over Romney in the state that Romney himself championed as the defining battleground for the nomination, Gingrich has dragged the Republican Party further to the right and, by wresting the prized asset of electability from Romney’s hands, forced Romney to make a pivot in that rightward direction, right when Romney was trying to make general election sounds.

Newt’s win represents the first time that no one clear favorite had developed after the South Carolina Primary, the “first-in-the-South” event whose outcome has reliably determined the eventual winner of the nomination. With former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ekeing out a win in the Iowa caucuses, Romney winning New Hampshire (as expected) and Newt’s win tonight, three contenders have won three different primary-season contests.

But it all makes perfect sense: an indecision of identity marks the Republican brand now, and has been a fact of political life since the Tea Party movement subdivided the GOP’s identity in 2010. How could the results of the first three contests in the GOP primary calendar reflect anything but the same confusion?

You could be charitable about all this and look at the existential disarray of the GOP campaign as some kind of annealing, crucible event — the bitter, brutal hammering out of a new conservative dynamic, the forging of a New Republican Party. But no. Hell naw. This is confusion and nothing but. A race that's had more resets than a shot clock in the NBA just another one.

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What a difference a month makes. After hitting the glide path in late November and early December, Gingrich dropped in the polls. A national Gallup poll released in December found his support among Republican voters cratering, with just 26 percent, down from 37 percent on Dec. 8.

Everybody jumped Newt. On ABC News, conservative voicebox George F. Will said that “Gingrich’s is an amazingly efficient candidacy, in that it embodies almost everything disagreeable about modern Washington. He’s the classic rental politician.”

On Dec. 2 Will said Newt’s temperament was “intellectual hubris distilled” and called him “the least conservative candidate,” one who “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.”

On Dec. 15, the conservative National Review checked Gingrich for “his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas” as House Speaker – traits that the conservative bible said hadn’t gone anywhere.

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But in spite of it all, the most strategically pugnacious, bluntly Machiavellian politician in at least a generation fought off the ridicule that accompanied finishing in fourth place in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, well out of the money ... until he found his voice.

On two nights, in two separate debates, with two brusque exchanges with the media that galvanized the people of South Carolina, Newt Gingrich reinvented himself, again by doubling down on what he’s always been: prickly, mercurial, professorial, uncompromising. Based on the returns from South Carolina, he’s just what the electorate was looking for.

In South Carolina, anyway. You see, regardless of Gingrich’s sudden ascension in the Palmetto State, he still gets no love in certain quarters in the South that is, for now, his salvation.

Henry Barbour, a top Republican party fundraiser from Mississippi, was plain-spoken. "He is a ticking time bomb," Barbour told Jon Ward of The Huffington Post.

"He won't last. He's great for a cable news show, but when does he blow up?" said Barbour, who jumped from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s doomed campaign to Romney’s organization after Perry revisited his earlier Frank Reappraisal and quit the race on Thursday.

"Romney has the plan, infrastructure and resources to win a quick or protracted campaign,” Barbour said. “Gingrich and Santorum will have a very hard time managing this as the pace quickens beyond their ability to execute in all the places they need to campaign.

On Dec. 15, The National Review said it plainer-spoken than that. “At the moment we think it important to urge Republicans to have the good sense to reject a hasty marriage to Gingrich, which would risk dissolving in acrimony.”

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All that was before South Carolina. Now, it’s been reported that the Republican hierarchy is frantic in a hair-on-fire kind of way to stop Gingrich from gaining any more ground, in Florida.

But the wily Newt may have already outflanked those who hope to marginalize him. The day after his win in South Carolina, Newt went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and laid out something that’s been missing from the talking points of most of the campaigns crashing and burning around him.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Newt wins South Carolina

Former House Speaker Newton Leroy Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex, has won the South Carolina Primary, according to top-of-the-hour NBC News projections almost certain to be echoed by the other news orgs. The people of the Palmetto State have sent a message: More red meat, please, Mr. Gingrich. Keep those steaks coming.

The apparent results send another message to Newt's challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: However far to the right you think you've already moved politically in this campaign ... as of this moment, it ain't far enough.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Newt Gingrich’s Southern strategy

There’s reason to believe that the citizens of Charleston, S.C., experienced a shortage of available products at the city’s butcher shops tonight. Truckloads of sirloin, rib-eyes, rump roast and ground chuck are all thought to have mysteriously made their way to the North Charleston Coliseum, where the fresh, raw red meat was unloaded at each of the four podiums on the Coliseum stage, the site of the latest GOP candidates’ debate.

From there, of course, it went straight to the audience, which, from all indications, couldn’t get enough.

The four remaining candidates — Texas Gov. Rick Perry quit the race today, completing the Frank Reappraisal of His Campaign he started after New Hampshire — each took their turns appealing to the rowdy crowd assembled tonight. Everyone tossed a rhetorical flank steak or two, but no one tonight played the crowd or the media quite like Newt Gingrich, at this hour a real threat to derail the Romney Coronation Express.

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Gingrich is gaining ground on Romney, the ostensible frontrunner, because he’s exploiting an advantage that could serve him well as the primary season winds its way through several states — Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia — between now and Super Tuesday, March 6.

This advantage has less to do with politics and everything to do with the dogged regional pride that defines and animates the Southern soul. Gingrich is blowing a dogwhistle to his base. No, this time it’s not the reliable dogwhistle of race, which he sounded in a ham-fisted way on Jan. 6 in New Hampshire when he said he’d go before the NAACP annual convention (if invited) and explain “why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

We’re starting to hear from Newt a dogwhistle that’s less politically problematic and more politically palatable: the subliminal call to regional ties.

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It was obvious at a campaign stop Wednesday in Warrenville, S.C., when Newt weighed in against the rival Romney campaign. “They thought they could buy this,” he said about the financially well-oiled Romney operation. “They’re discovering they can’t buy this ... People power can beat money power.” It was the kind of populist, kinship-with-the-common-man statement that Mitt Romney dare not try with a straight face.

It was obvious tonight in some of the first words out of his mouth. “It feels good to be back at home in the South,” Gingrich said, in an expression of joyful homecoming that harbored the force of a threat.

And it’s been obvious for some time now, whenever Gingrich lambastes Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate,” using the same kind of regionalist bludgeon Romney used on him in the friendlier confines of New Hampshire.

But since the focus turned to South Carolina, Newt might as well have been shouting it from the tallest building in Charleston: Don’t vote for Romney on Saturday. You know why? On top of everything else … he’s a Yankee! He used to be governor of the Republic of Massachusetts and now he hangs his hat in New Hampshire. He doesn’t know you! He doesn’t know us! He’s flip-flopped on everything but the name he writes on his checks! He’s phony as a $7 bill! And now he’s waiting on you for a coronation — don’t give him one! He thinks you’re a stepping stone — don’t be one, South Carolina!

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There are signs that South Carolinians may be listening. The latest CNN/ORC poll (pre-debate) finds support for Gingrich building; that survey finds a 10-point difference between Romney and Gingrich, roughly half the difference of a week before. And that poll was conducted before both the debate on Monday and the one tonight.

It was also before Romney’s admission of paying a 15 percent tax rate on his oceans of investment income — perfectly legal, but not exactly something a man worth $250 million wants to talk about in a state with an unemployment rate higher than the nation’s.

It gets more challenging for Team Romney. Four polls released between Wednesday and today give Gingrich hope in the Palmetto State; they show Newt not just within striking distance, but actually overtaking him, albeit by the slimmest of margins.

A new Rasmussen poll gives Newt a two-point edge over Romney. The American Research Group poll has Newt over Romney by a single point; statistically insignificant given the margin of error. But the Insider Advantage/Majority Opinion Research poll gives Gingrich a three-point bulge, and the latest Public Policy Polling survey has Gingrich up six points over Romney.

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It all points to the former Massachusetts governor being outflanked on all fronts. Gingrich himself drove that point home tonight, effectively. About 45 minutes into the debate, coinciding with a commercial break, CNN’s John King announced that the Gingrich campaign had just released Newt’s tax returns online. It was the perfect throwdown to Romney, who’s so far refused to do the same. Mitt previously said he’d wait until the filing deadline in April to release them.

Newt therefore one-upped Romney on this campaign ritual, and did so with a master stroke of 21st-century stagecraft and technology. Releasing his tax returns, while standing on the stage debating his archest rival about releasing tax returns! Did Newt do it himself with an iPhone behind the podium? Or was it all (probably) arranged beforehand?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Ballad of Jon Huntsman

He rode out of the West
With a dirt bike in his hand,
A maverick from the Beehive State,
He seemed to have a plan
For rescuing this nation
from perils small and large.
He threw his hat into the ring
To be the man in charge.

Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!
Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!

He played keyboards on Letterman,
He duly made the rounds,
His campaign had good optics,
He made all the right sounds.
But the voters didn’t trust him,
Or the campaign he was in:
He once worked in the White House
For the minister of sin.

Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!
Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!

He bet the ranch on Iowa,
‘Twas there he’d make his stand.
But Newt and Mitt and Ron Paul
Took victory from his hand.
With a bit of help from his PAC mule,
The Huntsman soldiered on
But his campaign had no traction
Past the ground it started on.

Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!
Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!

He spoke in fluent Mandarin
When English would suffice.
In a land of ruthless cutthroats
He made hay by playing nice.
But his message didn’t excite folks,
He was shackled to the meme
That he couldn’t light a fire
With a can of gasoline.

Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!
Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!

He never brought his A game
He never got higher than third
And in the dark New Hampshire night,
He vanished without a word.
And he only raised four million
In his bid to lead the land,
But you can’t be a contender
With chump change in your hand.

Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!
Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!

On a January morning,
The Huntsman packed it in.
He’d scrapped and bit and clawed and snarled,
He’d tried not to give in.
But the writing written on the wall
Was big as you’ve ever seen:
“We’ll meet you in the bye and bye
Of twenty and sixteen.”

Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!
Yo-ohhhh — Huntsman, ride!

Image credits: Huntsman top: Pool. Huntsman middle: Joe Raedle/Getty Images. Huntsman bottom: AP/The Sun News, Charles Slate.

Monday, January 16, 2012

NAACP King Day mission statement:
Expanding the electorate

Regardless of the content of their addresses Monday morning at the annual "King Day at the Dome" rally at the State House in Columbia, S.C., the joint appearance of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks volumes in and of itself. Monday marks the first time Holder will have been in the Palmetto State since Dec. 23, when the U.S. Department of Justice struck down its new voter photo ID law, which DOJ says would likely have disenfranchised minorities, students and disabled voters alike.

The optics of their joint appearance -- the leader of the nation's oldest and most storied civil rights organization and the country's top law-enforcement officer -- sends a signal about the intent, through legal challenges and social advocacy, to make voting rights a high priority in an already contentious election year. The rally takes place five days before the South Carolina primary.

The United States is a nation with a patchwork of laws on voter identification -- some states with strict policies, others with no policy at all. Thirty-one states require voters to show IDs before voting. In 2011, eight states -- Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin -- enacted variations of the same rule, requiring some form of photo identification. Critics of the laws argue that they disenfranchise voters of color and young voters, who are less likely to possess and be able to afford the required identification.

In an interview with The Root before his South Carolina address, Jealous spoke about the importance of the Justice Department action against South Carolina, the possible impact of new voter ID laws and the strategies for blunting their potentially suppressive impact on voter turnout in the 2012 election. ...

Read my interview with Ben Jealous in The Root

Image credits: South Carolina MLK Day rally: AP/Mary Ann Chastain. Jealous: Rainier Ehrhardt/Reuters.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Romney’s turn? Don’t believe the hype

The outcome of the New Hampshire Primary, more or less predictable as the sunrise, was revelatory in at least one way. Its results boiled down the dilemma of the Republican Party in 2012: The weakest field of candidates for that party’s nomination for the presidency in years is animated by a frontrunner the party’s base doesn’t want; another candidate or two that the party’s base doesn’t seem to need; a credible, well-spoken contender the party’s base doesn’t trust; and a libertarian maverick the party’s base doesn’t know what to do with.

The puzzling aspects of this presidential campaign — like a circular firing squad as designed by M.C. Escher — haven’t stopped party regulars and a shorthand-hungry media from latching onto a reasoning for Mitt Romney’s seeming inevitability as the nominee, a rationale that’s as amnesiac as it is wrong.

Republican thought leaders and the media are circulating the idea that Romney’s apparent glide path to the nomination in Tampa is the latest evidence of the GOP’s storied inclination to pull a nominee from the ranks of those who ran before. And it’s true: From tapping Reagan in 1980 to anointing Bob Dole in 1984, from George H.W. Bush in 1988 to John McCain in 2008, the Republican Party has a historical record of being the party of second chances and loyalty rewarded.

Romney follows half that script; the former Massachusetts governor dutifully ran in 2008 but lost and is seeking his second bite of the apple this year. But from there Romney breaks with party precedent in a way that much of the party’s not comfortable with. The popular thinking emerging from the punditocracy is that, in 2012, it’s “Romney’s turn,” that he’s “next in line.” But the notion that Romney inherits the nomination by virtue of being “next in line” begs the question of how long that line was in the first place.

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Certainly for pol watchers in the media, the line of possibles used to be a lot longer, and any of them could have altered the arc of the campaign. Simply put: If former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had thrown their hats in the ring, any talk of Romney being next in line would be rightly identified as a laughable fiction.

If any of them had agreed to run — or all of them — the tone and character of the GOP campaign, its sense of gravity, would be vastly different. Among other things, if any or all of them decided to run, Republican voters would have been freed, liberated en masse to reject Romney outright — the same way many of them do right now.

He’s not the presumed nominee in 2012 because of any party loyalty to him. Many in the GOP, for example, blame Romney for providing the template for the health-care law that Republicans deride as “Obamacare” — a template conservatives say Romney created when he was Massachusetts governor. Many more diss Romney for a long series of flip-flops on issues and positions, an omnidirectional open-mindedness that led Democratic strategist James Carville to call Romney “a serial windsock” on CNN.

The only thing that makes it “Romney’s turn” is the comparative weakness of the field around him. For now he reaps the dividends of the obligatory GOP succession plan, like the junior executive who finally gets a shot at the corner office — a reward for waiting for his “turn.” But Republican loyalty to Romney is situational, temporal, and utterly expedient.

GOP succession may be historically reliable, but this time the old rules don’t apply. How can it be “Romney’s turn” to vie for the nomination — with all the presumed support from voters and party influentials that that phrase implies — when national polls of likely Republican voters indicate a rejection of him for the nomination? How can you be “next in line” when a sizeable number of your own party don’t want you in that line at all?

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Three new polls (released before last Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire) reveal the persistence of tepid support for Romney. The Gallup daily tracking poll found Romney with 30 percent support, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 18 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 17 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 13 percent.

The Pew Research Center’s new survey of registered Republicans puts Romney leading with 27 percent support, Santorum and Gingrich tied for second with 16 percent, and Paul with 12 percent.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Black Friday through Tuesday: Sears’ big MLK Event

Call it a sign of the times. If you want evidence that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has fully trickled into the American experience, you didn’t have to look further than the ads for Sears “MLK Event,” broadcast frequently during the BCS championship football game between Alabama and LSU. The “Event,” which starts today and runs through Tuesday, offers markdowns on a range of Sears inventory, including HD televisions, Kenmore appliances and Craftsman tools.

Sears is also offering an online-only special for the occasion: the chance to get $20 off the price of purchases of $200 or more. Just enter the promo code WEEKENDSAVINGS at checkout to receive your discount. Or get FREE SHIPPING by entering the promo code ... MLK.

It makes sense for Sears to mount this post-Christmas shopping opportunity. The 125-year-old company got hammered over the holidays, with same-store holiday sales at Sears and Kmart locations off nationally by more than 5 percent — a victim of aggressive competition from so-called dollar stores, department stores, online retailers like Amazon and the more muscular big-box retailers like Walmart. Sears reportedly plans to close between 100 and 120 Sears and Kmart stores nationwide in the new year.

In the meantime, Sears is all about making the most of a well-known brand, and Americans’ never-ending hunt for a bargain. Bring on the preacher from Birmingham.

Any attempts by lawmakers and closed-minded skeptics to politicize the MLK holiday thus run head-on into our longstanding national ability to commercialize all such holidays. Think about it. How often in your lifetime have you seen live actors portraying George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as they sell you a new car or a GREAT DEAL on carpets or home spas, with “Yankee Doodle” playing patriotically on the soundtrack?

Sooner or later, all aspects of American identity are subsumed into the national economy. The MLK Day holiday is no exception. One might charitably describe it as part of the price we pay for equality.

Image credits: Ad snapshot and Sears logo: © 2012 Sears Brands LLC.

Tearing down the walls at ‘CBS Evening News’

In December, on the occasion of the six-month anniversary of the “CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley,” Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote a piece that sought to put Pelley’s newsroom ascension in a symbolic frame: “For decades, the office of the “CBS Evening News” anchor has been situated up a short staircase from the newscast’s open newsroom and anchor set. From that perch, the office has a view of the newsroom, like a balcony seat at a theater.

“But when [Katie] Couric had the anchor job, between 2006 and 2011, visitors noticed that the wall of windows in the office had been covered up, leaving her without a view. It served as a handy metaphor for the disconnect between Ms. Couric and some of the CBS News staff.

“But the view is wide open once again.”

There’s some dispute about the accuracy of Stelter’s reporting. Commenting in The Times on the Stelter story, Brian Goldsmith of Palo Alto, Calif., begs to differ: “I was a producer at CBS News when Katie Couric was anchor. It is simply untrue that her windows were covered up. CBS was renovating parts of the electrical operations and put up some temporary plastic scaffolding around that balcony.”

But whether Stelter’s tale of a cultural breakthrough within the literal walls of CBS News is true or not, there’s been no breakthrough in changing the habits and tastes of network news viewers — a fact that’s kept the “CBS Evening News” in the vexing position of being locked in third place, according to the ratings, despite the rise of one of the best investigative reporters on broadcast TV.

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Pelley took the helm of the CBS Evening News on June 6, replacing Couric, previously the spirited, peripatetic fixture of morning programming for years (at rival NBC’s “Today” show). After presiding over a level of fireworks that the bespoke-tailored, button-down CBS tradition wasn’t ready for, Couric left the CBS News anchor post in May, opening the door for Pelley to take the anchor desk.

“Clearly, it’s back to the future for CBS News,” I wrote last June. “Pelley’s rise to the big chair signals a retooling of the CBS brand, an un-makeover from the flashier Couric style, a return to the stiffer, more straightforward, more vanilla news model that defined CBS News in the years before Couric’s ascension.

“But it’s vanilla with a twist: Pelley’s bona fides in hard news, and his long association with “60 Minutes,” could give CBS News an investigative edge in the evening-news format — something, anything to lift the Tiffany Network out of the third-place doldrums it’s been in for years.”

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Old habits die hard, and apparently for broadcast news viewers, they don’t die at all. That’s the takeaway from a survey of ratings reports for the three broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — between the first week of June 2011, when Pelley took over, and the first week of this year. Despite Pelley’s takeover at “CBS Evening News,” consumer viewing habits haven’t changed much — and haven’t changed enough to shift the 1-2-3 order of preference … with CBS in third place, continuing an accidental tradition that started in the Couric era.

Despite making periodic gains in total viewers and in viewers in the coveted 25-54 age demographic, CBS started 2012 with that firm lock on third place – this despite “NBC Nightly News” shedding a million viewers from the same time in 2011, and still holding down first place.

And it’s been that way from the start of Pelley’s “Evening News.” His first week, the week of June 6, Pelley lured about 5.7 million viewers to the CBS broadcast, third behind ABC “World News With Diane Sawyer” and the “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.”

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During the heat of August, Pelley’s “Evening News” had fat, impressive numbers. A rash of events — from the fatal ouster of Gaddafi in Libya to the impact of Hurricane Irene as it marched up the Eastern Seaboard — conspired to create a momentary viewer windfall. All three evening-news programs pulled in a combined average of 22.56 million total viewers, but the Pelley “CBS Evening News” gained the most that month: 24 percent among total viewers.

But that good news was tempered by the bad: Since then, the “CBS Evening News” hasn’t been able to punch out of third place despite the bona fides that anchor Pelley also brings to the table as a reporter for CBS’ “60 Minutes” (a role he still plays from time to time). In August, “NBC Nightly News” would celebrate its 100th straight week in the No. 1 spot in evening broadcast news.

The truth is, the problem for CBS News isn’t specific to CBS. Collectively, the evening broadcast news experience runs up against shifts in consumer viewing habits and schedules; the evolution of DVR and consumer electronic technology; the rise of social media; and the relentless demands facing a nation of millions of generally oversubscribed lives.

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Pelley’s clipped, procedural, by-the-book on-air delivery doesn’t help. If some of Couric’s story choices and her on-air demeanor were too feature-ish by half, Pelley’s dialed back the personality factor to the point that it barely registers. Pelley deserves our respect, no question, but there’s not much benevolence to the man in the CBS News anchor chair. There’s nobody to root for, nobody to like right now. He’s like being told to eat your peas.

That may be Scott Pelley’s biggest challenge: in what’s shaping up to be a momentous political year, he’s yet to find that elusive balance of the personality that the times and culture demand, and the Tiffany polish and Murrowed reserve that’s baked into the CBS News broadcast model. And with CBS lagging in making inroads in the cable space (despite occasional tie-ups with CNN), Pelley in some respects is fighting with analog in a digital world.

Whether the story of walls-become-windows in the CBS News studio is true or not, Pelley’s seven-month-old iteration of the “CBS Evening News” seems to be still under construction. The hard work of tearing down viewers’ established ideas of what CBS News is today is just getting started.

Image credits: Pelley: CBS/John Filo. CBS eye: © 2012 CBS Inc. Evening news ratings snapshots: medialifemagazine.com.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Huntsman: On to South Carolina

At a campaign rally that cribbed from Barack Obama’s campaign soundtrack (hey everybody! U2’s “Beautiful Day” is back!) and the Beatles, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman put the Romney campaign on notice: Huntsman’s apparent third-place finish in new Hampshire would be his “ticket to ride” into South Carolina, the next battleground state in the primary calendar.

Patch: Newt may back Santorum

Andrew Moore of the Lexington S.C. Patch reports that sources inside the Santorum campaign say that Newt Gingrichintends to support the former Pennsylvania senator, should Newt quit the race.

“While Newt Gingrich campaign staffers are calling such talk premature, there are indications that should the former House Speaker bow out of the GOP race, he would throw his support behind rising Rick Santorum in a last-ditch effort to stop frontrunner Mitt Romney,” reports Lexington Patch, part of the Patch community Web site network owned by AOL and The Huffington Post.

“Multiple South Carolina sources affiliated with Santorum's campaign said Gingrich's campaign has contacted Santorum's campaign to discuss endorsing the former Pennsylvania senator should he drop out.

“One source, speaking to Patch on the condition they not be identified, paraphrased Gingrich's stance as delivered by high level campaign staff this way: ‘If it can't be me, I want it to be Rick Santorum.’"

Romney wins New Hampshire;
fight for 2nd and 3rd goes on

It’s early yet — fewer than 20 percent of the precincts reporting — but NBC News, CNN and the Associated Press, among others, are calling the New Hampshire Primary for Mitt Romney. No surprise there. The battle may be for second place. CNN walks out on a limb and says Ron Paul will finish second, with Jon Huntsman in third place. We’ll see. NBC News just awarded second place to Ron Paul, with 14 percent of the vote in. But in the last hour, Huntsman’s ticked up, from 17 percent to 18 percent.

Early results from New Hampshire

With a relative handful of votes (including those from Dixville Notch), the conventional wisdom's holding up. So far:

Image source: Associated Press via Google.

Jump ball II: Vertical leap in New Hampshire

“He is the first challenger to be plausibly presidential: knowledgeable, articulate, experienced, of stable character and authentic ideology.” Charles Krauthammer thus sang the praises of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, in an op-ed piece whose content we can probably expect to find in a Santorum campaign ad.

It’s all about timing, and Santorum exited the Iowa caucuses with momentum that money can’t buy (a good thing for a cash-challenged campaign). He arrived in New Hampshire having achieved some hybrid status in the public eye: operating effectively as a retail political entity — with the candidate available in person for the real contact voters crave — and availing himself of the earned media of news reports and TV interviews, and the viral possibilities of search and social media.

For a while, it seemed, Santorum couldn’t put a foot wrong. And then he stepped in something, More than once. In New Hampshire, his appearance in front of students at New England College went south fast when he got into a heated exchange over gay rights. And last week, of course, during a comment at a Jan. 2 campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, the candidate made an unwise comment about entitlement reform and people who use government assistance:

"I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money." Santorum has since denied saying “black”; it was, he said, a fumble for words that was actually “bluh.” Or some such. Bluh Americans will soon be heard from.

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Santorum’s recent stumbles haven’t been a monopoly. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made much the same kind of mistake on Thursday when he told people attending a town hall meeting in Plymouth, N.H., that if he’s invited to the NAACP’s 2012 convention, he'd attend and speak about "why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

The comment, of course, conflates black Americans and food stamps in a way that’s wildly unsupported by the facts. Gingrich has since been forced to walk that comment back, most notably in an exchange with a black New Hampshire state employee last week.

Even the presumed frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, got in the act on Monday. Speaking to the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, and responding to a question about health-care insurers, Romney said he’d let individuals have their own insurance because it would incentive insurers to keep clients healthy. “It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them,” Romney said. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

He added: “You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide that service to me.’”

Despite the perfectly legitimate context, the predictable soundbites went out almost immediately in the blogosphere. Romney tried to walk that back hours later, but by then for anyone who’d seen it, the context was almost immaterial. TJ218, commenting in National Review Online, knows what’s coming: “[W]hat he said isn't a bad thing per se, but perception is worth a lot in politics and he just gave the DNC a ready-made ad using his own words.”

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The capacity for enormous gaffes at the last minute is an equal opportunity thing, and it couldn’t come at a worse time for Romney, Santorum and Gingrich. As the expected results of today’s New Hampshire primary have been shifting in earnest for days; a Suffolk University/7News poll released Monday showed Romney support eroding while Santorum’s support more than tripled.

But it’s a funny thing about a jump ball. It would seem to favor the one with the highest vertical leap, or the tallest one in the crowd. But timing is everything; sometimes the ball goes to the shorter man who leaves the ground at just the right time.

Last week that man was Rick Santorum. This week that man looks a lot like Jon Huntsman.

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The former Utah governor, Obama White House ambassador to China and rock keyboard player, has been laying in the cut since his campaign started in June. Up until now, his appealingly quirky personal narrative and history of government service haven’t really caught on (especially his time in the Obama White House, which many conservatives see as nothing less than apostasy). But in the drive for the Anti-Romney, and facing the fact that their options for finding the Anti-Romney have just about run out, New Hampshire Republicans are pulling their chins about Huntsman at just the right time.

The Suffolk/7News poll from Monday had Huntsman in third place (13 percent), ahead of Gingrich and Santorum, but behind Romney (in first place) and Texas. Rep Ron Paul (in second). That’s no doubt in part because of Huntsman’s solid performance in the Sunday NBC News/Facebook debate, when Huntsman took on Romney’s objection to his serving in the Obama White House.

Like Nixon’s Checkers speech, and even John Kennedy’s frank talk about his Catholicism, Huntsman’s performance on Sunday enhanced his prospects by running headlong into the very thing party loyalists and skeptics oppose him for — effectively turning a negative into a positive, and inoculating himself from any rival’s future use of that negative as a negative.

It worked well enough for the Huntsman campaign to roll out the Huntsman-Romney exchange in a new (and devastatingly effective) campaign ad:

Whether it makes a difference, whether it changes enough minds at the eleventh hour, is anyone’s guess. For three or four more hours, at least. Early New Hampshire voting has Romney solidly in the lead, followed by Paul, then Huntsman, then Gingrich — the same positions predicted by the Suffolk/7News poll.

But that’s with 1 percent of precincts reporting, and vote totals in the single digits. It’s early yet. This jump ball’s expected to go Romney’s way, and barring some monumental game-change event, it probably will.

But the big fight now is for second place. If Santorum is to stay afloat, if Huntsman’s bid has any loft at all, a strong finish has got to happen soon. With Romney expected to win in New Hampshire, there’s never been so much attention paid identifying the one who almost got the ball.

Image credits: Santorum, Romney and Huntsman: Fox News.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Great expectations in New Hampshire

There’s a growing consensus among the TV analysts and commentators about the probable outcome of Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. It’s distilled in a phrase that’s hinted at, if not said outright: “Romney’s to lose.” The prohibitive favorite to win, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has thus effectively been crowned the winner already. But he now faces expectations of a margin of performance that he may not be able to deliver. Especially since he’s not even in New Hampshire.

Romney’s expected to win in the state, and win big. So the burden of proof will be on the candidate to win by an impressive enough margin to take serious consideration of anyone else off the table. In the bizarre calculus of politics, his most ascendant challenger, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, is already the beneficiary of lower expectations. He’s not expected to win at all, so any evidence of strong upward momentum — a solid second-place finish in the mid to high twenties — would be as much a victory for Santorum, politically speaking, as first place would be for Romney.

Santorum, who arrived in New Hampshire on Wednesday, has been doubling down on the personal approach that worked for him in Iowa, and he’s been doing it in the absence of Romney, who (curiously) is nowhere to be found in the state. The Romney campaign thinking, apparently, is that with the candidate enjoying such a strong lead in his literal backyard, there’s no need to hang around to preside over a forgone conclusion. On to South Carolina! A good idea? Maybe not.

Jennifer Donahue, a veteran New Hampshire political analyst, doesn’t think so. “I think Santorum is trying to capitalize on his ability to connect on a retail level, something Romney has yet to do in New Hampshire, even though he’s been campaigning here for five years,” she said on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC. “That’s Romney’s biggest challenge. He may have all the money in the world to spend on this race, but nothing will replace that grassroots hand-holding that voters in New Hampshire are used to seeing, and expect to see.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The early polling in the Granite State suggests that Romney is on a glide path to victory in the nation’s first presidential primary. Romney placed first (with 43 percent) in a Suffolk University/7News poll of likely New Hampshire voters, released on Wednesday; Texas Rep. Ron Paul stands in second with 14 percent; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is at 9; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 7; and Santorum at 6.

The next day, Thursday, Suffolk/7News released a new poll that showed Romney had slipped to 41 percent, while Santorum had climbed to 8 percent. Ron Paul also climbed to 18 percent in the latest poll, while Gingrich and Huntsman had 7 percent each.

That little 2-point swing up and down for the candidates may or may not signal more shifts to come. But to go by one seasoned observer of New Hampshire politics, the state polls that the media has taken as campaign holy writ ain’t necessarily credible in the first place.

On Wednesday, James Pindell, political analyst for New Hampshire’s WMUR, told MSNBC’s “Hardball” that “polls here are very unreliable. Let’s go back to 1980. Ronald Reagan had a 47-point lead [over George H.W.] Bush. He ends up beating him by 27 points. Jimmy Carter was supposed to win by 29, heading into the last week of the [1976] primary. Wins by 10. When voters in New Hampshire make up their minds in the last couple of days — and 15 percent will always make it up in the last couple of days — this place is totally unpredictable.”

According to the Thursday Suffolk/7News poll, 17 percent of New Hampshire voters are undecided.

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Two themes are likely at work in New Hampshire, one that embodies the state’s documented maverick political tendencies, the other something as reliable and as deeply felt as the one in American political life that respects a powerhouse. It’s the one that embraces the Little Guy.

That mini-meme didn’t just start two or three days ago on Santorum’s behalf. Back in early December, Matt Schultz, the Iowa secretary of state, was first among state officials to publicly endorse Santorum in the Iowa caucuses. When Ginger Gibson of Politico asked Schultz the inevitable Why?, Schultz’s answer, in the present tense, was an accurate expression of Iowans’ sentiments two weeks in the future:

“We are in difficult times, and we need somebody who can stand up, who is a scrapper, who is willing to fight the good fight” ...

“I tend to like the underdog.”

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In ways that run counter to the sacrosancts of modern politics, Rick Santorum could be the most dangerous thing for the Romney campaign right now. Why? Among other reasons, there’s this one: because Santorum is the one candidate the Romney crew hasn’t really wargamed a strategy for. Until late last month, they didn’t think they needed to.

As the razor-thin margin in Iowa indicates, that oversight could get increasingly expensive for Team Romney. It points to a problem with a campaign’s giantism — running the risk of being slow-footed and less than nimble; a consequence of maybe, just maybe, being too big for its own good.

Never mind chaos theory; in the chaos reality of American politics, the butterfly of an insurgent campaign with the right message and the right messenger has been known to flap its wings and create a tidal wave of support that capsizes the bigger, better- funded campaign on Election Day.

Hillary Clinton can testify to that.

At this time in the 2008 race, she was the one presumptively coronated by the conventional political wisdom, the punditburo — and herself. She was the candidate with the armamentarium to defeat all comers. She was the one being hailed as unstoppable, invincible, electable ... inevitable.

We all know how that inevitably turned out.

Image credits: Romney: CNN> Santorum: The Weekly Standard. Clinton: Bbsrock, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iowa's split decision

The state of Iowa sent several messages with the results of the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. With the literal split decision rendered by Iowa voters, effectively sending both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to the winners’ circle, people in the Hawkeye State said it all loud and clear:

In these days of Facebook and Foursquare and Twitter, you can keep your social media, you can keep your media-built strategies and flyover interactions with the public. In Iowa, good, old-fashioned handshake retail politics is very much alive and well.

Santorum’s insurgent campaign used that strategy to great effect by Tuesday night. The candidate, who visited each of Iowa’s 99 counties and attended more than 350 fundraisers and public events in the past several months, cashed in big at the caucuses. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum and Romney both garnered 25 percent of the total vote. Only eight votes separated their raw totals.

But there’s more than one way to look at a photo finish. For Romney, landing about 25 percent of the vote, give or take, has been standard operating procedure for months now. In numerous opinion polls in recent months, and certainly in recent weeks, Romney has had a prohibitive lock on that 25 percent-tops figure. It was pretty much his ceiling of support, but with a badly fractured field, that was enough.

The real story now is Santorum.

After months of grinding it out in a county-by-county offensive, Santorum has been building his favorables in utter disregard of the conventional wisdom that says a bare-bones candidacy can’t win. With next to no money and a pickup truck instead of a sleek logo-bedecked motorcoach, the grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner took an analog approach to building a grassroots network in Iowa, and it’s worked with stunning efficiency. His peak has dovetailed with the actual start of the primary season.

And with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (in fifth place in the caucuses) announcing plans Wednesday morning to head back to Texas for the Frank Reappraisal of the Campaign that always precedes pulling the plug, Santorum nicely fills the desires of evangelicals looking for the next viable candidate whose principles line up with theirs.

Romney, on the other hand, eked out a victory Tuesday — if you can really call it that — after years of periodic appearances that started during his failed 2008 bid for the presidency, and months of arm’s-length campaigning this time out, with TV ads, an online presence and hordes of volunteers and surrogates for the candidate, who was until a few weeks back, largely otherwise engaged.

Santorum can celebrate this triumph in a number of ways. One of the ways to savor this co-victory is through an economic lens: Santorum gained, on a relative shoestring, the same kind of electoral victory that Romney paid many dear millions of dollars to achieve. In the end, Romney, the man with Experience In the Private Sector, directed a well-oiled, deeply-capitalized campaign that got the same result as a campaign that’s financially running on fumes.

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We might have known something was up when the Des Moines Register poll found that 41 percent of Iowans were undecided just days before the caucuses. despite the boss’ channeling of Howard Dean (“We’re gonna win this thing!”), despite all his campaign’s firepower — the ground game, the burn rate, the polished profile — there was still a sense of the campaign lowering expectations. Forty-one percent. That many Iowans shouldn't be undecided if your campaign is really doing its job.

The reasonable expectation would have been that the Romney 2012 juggernaut would blow Santorum away in Iowa, and do so by orders of magntiude. The fact that he didn’t puts some things in doubt for Team Romney — among them the idea that he could cakewalk to the nomination on the strength of his possessing the ephemeral quality of Electability. With an economic efficiency that should make a private equity guy like Romney sit up and take notice, Santorum offered evidence of a return on investment that’s so far superior to Romney’s own.

And with a populist clarity that the Romney campaign had better take notice of, Iowa sent another message, the same one other states on the primary calendar will send, in their own way, between now and early March:

You’re not the boss of me. We don’t coronate anyone. And you — the party leaders, the media, the big-check donors, the croupiers on Wall Street and the politicians on Capitol Hill — you don’t decide who is and who’s not Electable.

We do.
Image credit: Santorum: CNN.
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