Politics

In South Carolina, Gingrich slows down Romney’s runaway train

By J Brooks Spector 23 January 2012

Revelations about his private life notwithstanding, Newt Gingrich steamrolled Mitt Romney and the rest of the suddenly diminished GOP hopefuls' field. The staunchly conservative southern state's Republicans, as well as the late certified results from Iowa that showed Rick Santorum had won, have injected a huge measure of uncertainty into the race that appeared settled just a few short days ago. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In a real stunner, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich trounced the heretofore nominee-apparent Mitt Romney in the South Carolina Republican primary election on 22 January. By the time the voting had been counted, in a Republican Party field that is now down to four, Gingrich captured 40.4%, Romney had 27.9%, Rick Santorum polled 17% and the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul ended up with 13%. The remaining 1.8% went to candidates no longer actively campaigning for the nomination so consider this a vote for none-of-the-above or who cares, perhaps. The week was a really tough one for Mitt Romney. His previous air of invincibility has been battered with this loss – plus a revised Republican Party count for the Iowa Caucus that now lists Rick Santorum as the winner by a razor-thin margin in place of an earlier, even thinner margin for Romney in the initial count.

Veteran political operatives James Carville and Alex Castellanos probably summed up the results best, early in the morning after the actual voting on CNN. A bemused Castellanos, speaking from a long-time Republican perspective, shook his head and noted that evangelical, born-again, social values-oriented Republican Party voters had just endorsed a man whose family values include three marriages and several concurrent affairs and who had also attacked the man who literally embodied a belief in traditional Republican business verities.

Meanwhile, James “the Ragin’ Cajun” Carville, one of Bill Clinton’s key political operatives, gave a trademark, wrinkly wry face on TV to observe that Republican outrage with Washington and the elite liberal media had just given a rousing thumbs-up to the ultimate Washington insider and lobbyist for Freddie Mac – the very mortgage-holding, quasi-government institution that was at the epicentre of the financial crisis that began five years ago. Ever the political tactician, now that it is an all-out fight among the Republicans, Carville predicted that due to Romney’s visible wounds from his failure to release his tax records or to defend successfully his role with Bain Capital’s jobs record in a decade of leveraged buyouts and corporate restructuring projects, viewers should now watch for rising calls for Gingrich to release his Freddie Mac contract so his critics can pick apart those bones – just prior to the Florida primary on 31 January.  (Mitt Romney has announced he will release his tax returns on Tuesday – the 2010 return and his estimate for 2011, adding it was a mistake not to have done so earlier.)

Photo: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney pauses with his wife Ann (L) looking on as he addresses his South Carolina Primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Given the new dynamic of the primary election season and the inability of Romney to wrap up the nomination he was presumed to have owned by seniority, the upcoming Florida primary now looms as the decisive moment in this Republican Party contest to win the right to face Barack Obama in November for the US presidency. In contrast to Iowa, New Hampshire, and now, South Carolina, Florida is a big, widely differentiated state with multiple expensive media markets in cities usually key to rolling up vote totals there. Not to put too fine a point on it, Florida is also a key battleground state for the general election by virtue of its complex electorate and its major electoral weight.

Republican constituencies in Florida are divergent beyond religious divisions. In the Republicans’ case, they are split ethnically between whites and Latinos, as well by other divisions such as urban and rural residence and concerns, and in terms of whether they are traditional Floridians or are transplants from the north. To gain a victory in Florida, large gouts of money to blanket the airwaves, conduct intensive polling to shape and reshape messages, distribute campaign literature and fund travel and staff support may matter for a campaign there, more than it does in the three places that were the sites for the first caucus and the first two primaries. Unless, of course, a candidate truly manages to tap into a subterranean vein of anger, fear or yearning that can be drawn upon to transcend standard campaign tactics.

While the polls still seem to show Romney has a strong lead in Florida, that was similarly true in South Carolina as recently as only a fortnight before that state’s primary election. But, things can change fast when one candidate finds his voice and footing while the other one appears to have found only a broken-voiced frog in his throat for a message. In Gingrich’s case, his earlier pose as the optimistic I’m-in-this-for-the-thrill-and-fun-of-it-champion-of-free-enterprise-thinking-big-and-out-of-the-box has now been replaced by “Angry-Everyman-Newt”, the crusading scourge of New York’s subversive media, Washington’s spendthrift ways, alien liberal social attitudes and vulture capitalism. Still grandiose, Gingrich now sees himself at one with Churchill, Pericles, Washington, Lincoln and a host of other truly historic figures.

But if Gingrich resembles anything and anyone right now, it would have to be Peter Finch’s character, Howard Beal, from the film, “Network”, the deranged newscaster with his broadcast castigation of those shadowy interests that really ran things, as he growled out from millions of television sets: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Buried in this is also Newt Gingrich with his dog-whistle political messages and their subliminal racial politics. His shout outs of Obama as that deplorable food stamp president are a not-so-subtle throwback to the favoured message of racial politics about those presumably African American “welfare queens” living large in their Cadillacs while the put-upon who play it straight have to work hard for their meagre wages.

Watch: Newt Gingrich attacks CNN’s John King over adultery question

And his withering, televised humiliations of broadcast journalists Juan Williams and John King on racially charged issues and then on Gingrich’s problematic relationship with marital fidelity when they chaired two candidates’ debates, put him in the driver’s seat to corral those voters he had to win. In particular, with CNN-sponsored debate only days before the voting, Gingrich slammed King for raising the charges from Gingrich’s second wife that Newt had sought her blessing for an open marriage to allow him to keep his mistress on the side – the woman who eventually became his third wife. (Per James Carville’s bemusement, who would have ever thought such a colloquy would elicit raptures and cheers amidst a Republican Party race with the very voters who, when polled, said they felt strongly about family values and the sanctity of marriage?)

All this may play well with white values/social attitudes voters in the South (and to some degree in the jobs-bleeding industrial cities of the Midwest) who were ancestrally Democrats before their decisive shift in the 1960s and 70s under the Nixon “Southern Strategy” and later with Ronald Reagan, but the math is all wrong for victory in the general election. Winning with a passionate minority of a minority might conceivably gain the nomination, but it will attract few independents and even fewer current Democrats down the road. It will poison even further views towards politics as a mean-spirited, dog-eat-dog world on the part of many voters, and it may even make things tougher for Republican congressional candidates in marginal districts – or in those senate races they had hoped to seize in November. Watch for Romney supporters to wave around just this kind of polling in the weeks ahead as a way to head off the Gingrich revolt.

Going forward into Florida and the remaining primaries and caucuses, the fundamental challenge for Gingrich is to somehow transcend his increasingly harsh rhetoric (even as he continues to use it) so as to prove his message is aimed at more than just would-be voters with pent-up fury about, well, about just about everything. And for Romney, now, it is about switching his theme music from “The Eye of the Tiger” to the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” – and turning his perplexing, continuing stutter over his tax returns back to a coherent, cogent message over tax reform and financial disclosure, creating jobs, and being strong internationally to attract more Republicans – and even more independents and Democrats.

For Rick Santorum, well, now it is probably more about being there to garner a cabinet office when the Republicans win (if they do) or, perhaps, more remotely, the vice presidential nomination. For Ron Paul, meanwhile, it is about getting his moment in the sun on national television for a whimsical message about turning back the clock on the nation’s currency to some sort of pseudo-golden age of a gold-backed dollar, withdrawing the troops from everywhere beyond Hawaii and scraping away a century’s worth of social and economic legislation. This latter despite polls that continue to prove such measures are supported by the majority of the nation. Is his future in a third party when he finally admits defeat over the spring and summer? Well, the answer to that might be a “yes”, but only if he senses the eventual Republican candidate is so bruised and wounded that defeat in November can’t be pinned on Ron Paul and a third party.

And for Barack Obama, well, his tasks are simple: keep his foreign policy credentials burnished (presumably without a war with Iran but with visible progress on keeping that nuclear genie in the bottle); maintaining some modest economic progress on the go so voters see a positive trend line; and perhaps most important of all, keep his campaign minions focused like that proverbial laser beam on all the extraordinary things the Republicans keep saying about each other so that these sound-bites are trimmed, wrapped and ready to go, after the Labour Day holiday at the beginning of September. 

As for this writer, after having signed up for Romney updates just before New Hampshire, it looks like we’d better do the same with Newt Gingrich’s as well. DM


For more, read:

  • Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina primary in the Washington Post;
  • Florida will show which GOP candidate has momentum in the Washington Post;
  • Gingrich Wins South Carolina Primary, Upending G.O.P. Race in the New York Times;
  • Gingrich, Romney face ultimate test at the CNN website.

Main photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures during during his victory speech at his South Carolina Primary election night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer.

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