Tuesday, January 10, 2012

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.

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