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GOP 2012: It’s Mitt Romney’s race to lose now

GOP 2012: It’s Mitt Romney’s race to lose now

America’s 2012 presidential campaign arrived two days after New Years, with the first for-real voting taking place in the Iowa caucus. Mitt Romney prevailed in a squeaker that gave him a razor-thin margin of eight votes over his nearest challenger, Rick Santorum, and left Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich pondering whether they even have a next move left. Ron Paul maximised his support to a third place finish, even as political commentators rushed to announce that Paul had topped out and would never be the party’s nominee. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In “The Ides of March”, the new American political thriller directed by George Clooney, featuring an ensemble cast of Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Rachel Evan Wood and Clooney himself, Gosling’s idealistic media coordinator, Steve Myers, justifies his participation in Governor Mike Morris’ campaign to gain the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination by dubbing Morris “The One”. “The One”, of course, is a candidate whose values, virtues and leadership qualities are so transcendent that Myers “has drunk the Kool Aid” and truly believes Morris deserves to – and must – win the primary election battle in Ohio that will clinch the nomination.

This being cinema, in the fullness of time Myers discovers Morris has feet of clay in the personal values category – and, crucially, that his own moral compass is now spinning out of truth as well. Regardless, the two seal a Faustian bargain or two that helps cinch the nomination and lets them sleep the sleep of the powerful, if not that of the just.

Over here in the real world, a different version of this dance is now playing out for keeps. And eventually the question of who is “The One” for Republican true believers may get its answer as well. In the American Midwestern state of Iowa, a state with about 1% of the nation’s population, and one whose inhabitants are significantly more evangelical/born-again/fundamentalist Christian, whiter, older and more rural and small town than the rest of the nation, perpetual candidate and ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pipped ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by the thickness of an onion skin – eight votes out in a total of over a 122,000 cast – with both candidates polling around a quarter of the vote total. In the end the winning margin was eight votes.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Congressman Ron Paul and his wife Carol look to the crowd at his Iowa Caucus night rally in Ankeny, Iowa, January 3, 2012. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Coming in third was another fixture on the political scene – libertarian-leaning Texas congressman Ron Paul – followed by Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman. By the day after, the caucus results were all in, and after a disappointing vote total, Michele Bachmann withdrew from the race for the nomination. Rick Perry had gone back to Texas to lick his wounds but, rather than admit the obvious, instead tweeted supporters “the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State… Here we come South Carolina!!!” – essentially forgoing putting up any real challenge to Romney in the now-rapidly approaching primary contest in New Hampshire on 10 January. This particular vote in Iowa came in the form of what is called a caucus, gatherings that took place in some 1,700 precincts across the state where interested citizens identifying themselves as Republicans gathered in school halls and community centres to talk themselves into supporting one or another candidate – and thus pick the delegates who will wield the actual votes, once the party gathers at its national convention in Tampa, Florida on 27 August.

For several years, Romney has been crafting a message, image and persona as an experienced businessman-turned-politician who is eager to save the country from the excesses of the Obama administration’s dangerous leftward tilt. Moreover, since his defeat for the nomination by John McCain in 2008, Romney focused on refining a smooth campaign machinery and building up a war chest to fund it, as well as a campaign message sufficiently gauzy in its details that his numerous career shifts on the issues that animate the right wing of his party eventually would be outweighed by the mantra that management expertise is the only thing that can save the nation.

This approach held Romney’s base of support, but perhaps critically, it failed to enlarge this base significantly, despite a last minute spurt of funding to blanket the state with his message. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum emerged in the past few weeks to surge forward after months of moving methodically through all 99 Iowa counties. His modus operandi, in contrast to Romney’s, aimed at connecting with voters on a close personal way. But it acknowledged he didn’t have the funds to pay for a bigger campaign machine. Nonetheless, growing numbers of Iowa voters warmed to Santorum personally – and even more to a message that touched the themes embraced by Iowans more interested in family values issues like abortion and same sex marriage than by any demonstrated economic smarts or a putative ability to go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama in November.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum campaigns at the “Rock the Caucus” Rally at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 3, 2012. REUTERS/John Gress

Santorum’s persona seems to have made the crucial difference – bringing him forward from an afterthought to that of Romney’s strongest challenger. And national audiences have now heard him first-hand, unmediated by the words of other candidates in the various candidate debates, in a “concession” speech where he spoke movingly about his commitment to those family values themes, the virtues of thrift and hard work, and his belief in the essential truth of American exceptionalism. Santorum spoke of his modest family background and his grandfather’s experience as an immigrant from Italy before World War II. The speech came as Iowa Republican officials finally announced the result after two in the morning on the East Coast – cutting down on the audience, obviously – but it will be replayed endlessly in the days ahead.

TV commentators quickly pronounced his speech as the “home run” of the night, thereby setting up Santorum as Romney’s newest – and perhaps most dangerous – challenge from the rightward, values side of their shared party. And the spirit of Santorum’s speech became an instant riposte to Romney’s above the fray, nearly bloodless, intended juggernaut, en route to an automatic Republican nomination. Comedian-actor George Burns once famously said, “The most important thing to succeed in show business is sincerity. And if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Santorum has successfully made himself the honest, humble man in a sea of political rhetoric with his five minutes of scripted spontaneity. His challenge, now, will be to build upon his moral victory in the primary in New Hampshire on 10 November – a place where Mitt Romney’s support has been running at over 40% for months. Now that the Iowa caucus is finally over, readers will hear virtually nothing more about Iowa, unless the results there turn out to be a harbinger of things to come in succeeding primaries.
Giving Romney a further lift is the news Arizona senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee and Romney’s opponent for that nomination, has decided to campaign for Romney this time around. While this may not make much difference in New Hampshire, it could give aid and comfort to him in the next primaries in South Carolina and Florida – both homes to considerable numbers of active duty and retired military personnel (McCain is the country’s best-known former POW and he still has considerable popularity with the military community – although Ron Paul has apparently garnered more in cash contributions from military personnel than any other candidate).

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann announces the end of her presidential campaign in West Des Moines, Iowa January 4, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The Romney camp is obviously hoping a strong showing in New Hampshire, and respectable ones in South Carolina and Florida will create sufficient momentum that by the time Super Tuesday (a day with multiple primaries occurring together) rolls around on 6 March, the race is over and Romney can concentrate on fine-tuning his message to oppose president Obama – and picking a running mate.

Now, here’s a thought: What if Romney reaches out to Rick Santorum as his running mate, giving his candidacy the patina of support for all those family values issues, the made-for-TV sincerity of Santorum’s reach back to those timeless American verities – and a call to all those disgruntled Republican values voters to come home to papa, all is forgiven? And what if all of this comes as an add-on to Romney’s message of his economic and financial mastery and his ability to go toe-to-toe with the incumbent? Now whose Faustian bargain would that become if life imitates cinema this way? DM

For more, read:

  • Romney Wins Iowa Caucus by 8 Votes at NY Times;
  • Iowa caucus results: Mitt Romney edges Rick Santorum in Iowa at Politico;
  • Iowa caucus results: Romney edges Santorum; Paul finishes third at Washington Post.

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