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GOP 2012: Mitt Happens?

GOP 2012: Mitt Happens?

Farmers drilling for water in arid regions often strike a particularly hard layer of rock close to the surface leaving them little choice but to carry on drilling to reach the deeper more promising levels. But it is frustrating, slow and laborious. Mitt Romney's campaign at the moment bears strong resemblances to this tedious time. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Count Otto von Bismarck famously declared that people with weak stomachs should never watch sausage or diplomacy being made. In this, the 2012 winter of America’s political discontent, perhaps Bismarck’s advice should include the selection of a Republican candidate for president as well.

After months of jockeying, pushing and shoving, berating and browbeating among a gaggle of would-be candidates in what has been called a circular firing squad, the race has narrowed down to a contest between two differently flawed men former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. The question of whether this contest is over or will continue on through Super Tuesday on 6 March and beyond, will be clearer on Wednesday morning, once the results from Arizona and Michigan primaries are known.

Republicans are divided among the old establishment of businessmen and lawyers, the social values and attitudes conservatives, the libertarian outliers and the economic liberal-but-social conservatives  descendants of the Reagan Democrats from the South and industrial heartland of the Midwest. The original blueprint of the Romney campaign was to consolidate the old establishment and then gain ascendancy with the support of those “Reagan Democrat” voters, thereby outflanking the other two groups – presumed to be in the hands of one after another non-Romney conservative candidate like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich – and Ron Paul.

For months, the conventional wisdom had been that the nomination was Mitt Romney’s virtually by default. His experience, campaign organisation and the deep pockets of his supporters would outweigh his charisma deficit. The argument that his business acumen was the right fit for the country’s economically troubled times was assumed to be right on target – and may still have legs if petrol prices head beyond $4/gallon as the summer travel season begins. However, these assumptions have clearly not taken into account Mitt Romney’s inability to frame with conviction the reasons he should be chosen by primary voters, let alone his extraordinary rhetorical left-footedness, that time and again has left him and his staff to explain his explanations of what he meant to say the first time.

In his most recent contretemps in Detroit, Romney spoke to an audience that seemed overwhelmed by the vastness of the amphitheatre. The New York Times noted, “In an unusual choice, Mr. Romney gave his speech inside Ford Field, a cavernous indoor football stadium with 65,000 seats. Before Mr. Romney had uttered a word, reporters began posting pictures online showing the stadium from every available angle — almost empty, except for the [1,200] chairs set up on the field itself, near the 20-yard line.”

At the same time, new discussion of his earlier pronouncement that General Motors and Chrysler should have been allowed or forced into a disorderly bankruptcy back in 2009 rather than the controlled auto bailout have made it more difficult for Romney to claim victory in Michigan. And yet this is a state where he was born, where his father was governor and the head of an automobile manufacturer and where Mitt should have been about to take his victory lap already. “Mitt Happens” read a protester’s sign.

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, continues to give a pretty good impression of a man campaigning to become the nation’s supreme religious leader in a caricature of Old Testament fire and brimstone. His public pronouncements on homosexuality, contraception, Obama’s theology and public schooling as a breeding ground for radical feminism and other ills should have given a more moderate competitor an open road to gather support.

The flavour of recent Santorum rhetoric led to his calling Obama “a snob” for saying every American child should be able to go to college. “Why does Obama want everybody to go to college? So his liberal college professors can be indoctrinating people like he has?” The Washington Post’s conservative columnist, Jennifer Rubin, saw Santorum’s campaign problems as less with his pro-life views and opposition to gay marriage, and more “with his desire to uproot decades-old trends (e.g. women in the workplace, women in combat, use of contraception) and to use religious terminology and judgements to cast aspersions on his opponents (e.g. ‘phony theology,’ the devil has infiltrated American institutions). In short, Santorum on social issues is not a conservative but a reactionary, seeking to obliterate the national consensus on a range of issues beyond gay marriage and abortion.” That has rarely been the formula for a November win.

John McCain called this intra-party debate “mud wrestling” on one of the weekend television talk shows. The messy nature of this contest is even leading a number of Republican commentators to wonder if this campaign will end up with no candidate gaining the necessary number of delegates to wrap up the nomination – leading to a brokered convention where party elders make it right somehow.

Alternatively, some commentators – against history and the odds – continue to urge one of the big names not running – New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels or even former Florida governor Jeb Bush – to step up prior to the convention and declare an interest in running after all. There are even observers who are beginning to argue the Republicans are essentially writing off this election, conceding an Obama victory and concentrating on grooming good candidates for the 2016 race, an approach redolent of lacklustre Republican energy in the Clinton-Dole match-up of 1996.

Romney must now make his case as strongest challenger to gain dominance in the run-up to Super Tuesday. As a consequence, Romney has been focusing on central and southeast Michigan’s urban and industrial centres in hopes of pulling ahead of Santorum. By contrast, if Santorum pulls out a Michigan win, he would cement his position as the conservative to hold off a Romney candidacy even if he remained behind in the delegate count.

The Romney camp is now trying to paint Santorum as a creature of that perennial Republican evil of the culture of Washington, supporter of special-interest earmarks in budgets, and a man who ended up in the pockets of other special interests once he left the Senate.

For his part, Santorum has volleyed back. “It is absolutely laughable to have a liberal governor of Massachusetts suggest that I am not a conservative. He repeatedly gets up and says all these things that he didn’t do that he did do. Folks, this is an issue of trust.” Santorum continues to point to Romney’s healthcare reforms in Massachusetts for their similarity with the one Obama signed into law.

As Santorum insists, “Are you going to vote for someone that says one thing one day anything else the next day that’s necessary to win? Or are you going to vote for someone you trust?” Santorum argues, “Why would we nominate someone who is uniquely unqualified to take on the big issues of the day in this election about government control of your life?”

While Ron Paul concedes he has little chance to win in Michigan, he has, nevertheless, been attacking Santorum. Gingrich, meanwhile, has avoided both contests, hoping to pull off a surprise in his home state of Georgia and maybe even neighbouring Tennessee on 6 March.

Meanwhile, foreign policy issues have been taking second tier as Romney and Santorum have tried to outdo each other as hawks on Iran, supporting Israel and insistent they can magically lower petroleum prices as a result of international belligerence.

As for what happens on 28 February, the most recent polls now show a virtual dead-heat between Romney and Santorum in Michigan, while Arizona is acknowledged to be an almost certain Romney win, given Arizona senator John McCain’s endorsement of Romney, as well as the significant Mormon population. The victory party is still some time away. DM

Read more:

  • Down to the wire in 2-man GOP race in Michigan at the AP.
  • Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney battle for upper hand in Michigan primary in the The Washington Post.
  • Prolonged Race Forces Romney Campaign to Recalibrate in The New York Times.
  • Santorum Vows to Wage a Long, Fierce Battle in The New York Times.

Photo: A man holds a sign during a “Dogs Against Romney” demonstration outside the 136th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, February 14, 2012. The group, founded in 2007, is demonstrating against U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s treatment of his family dog, which was subjected to ride on the roof of the family car for hours during a vacation in the 1980s. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.


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