January 2012: The Romney tide rises

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

With his commanding victory tonight in Florida’s Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney now has a clear path to the GOP nomination.

One unanswered question: will former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich remain in the race all the way to the GOP convention in August, as he has promised, or will he eventually drop out? If he does stay in the hunt, will he conduct a scorched-earth campaign, attacking Romney from both the Right and Left as he did throughout January?

What became clear during the roller-coaster month was that Republicans weren’t overjoyed with their choices. Some questioned whether Romney would make the strong conservative case against President Barack Obama.

I attended a Romney rally in Exeter, N.H. on the Sunday before the primary (won by Romney) and saw firsthand what has been giving some on the Right pause. Romney was joined by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and it was Christie who excited the crowd, first with his abrupt dismissal of some Occupy Wall Street protestors who had heckled him, and then with his hard-edged verbal assault on Obama and his policies. In contrast, when the telegenic Romney spoke, he came across as, well, moderate in his tone and rhetoric. He is the cool, data-driven manager and turn-around specialist, not a partisan warrior. It’s doubtful that he will ever satisfy those in the Republican base who crave “red-meat” attacks on all things Obama.

GOP voters in South Carolina apparently preferred the harder edge displayed by Newt Gingrich in two debates prior to the state’s January 21 primary. The surprisingly-large Gingrich win raised questions about Romney’s inevitability and suggested that evangelical Christian voters and Tea Party advocates weren’t convinced of Romney’s conservative bona fides. (It is also very likely that Romney’s religion hurt him among those evangelicals who regard Mormonism as a cult.)

The Romney recovery

While his critics on the Right deride Romney for his pragmatism, his willingness to change tactics salvaged his campaign. He decided that in Florida he would again invest in negative advertising about Gingrich, repeating a move that had swamped his rival in Iowa. Romney also reached out for help from the well-regarded debate coach Brett O’Donnell.

Romney was also helped by Gingrich’s checkered reputation. Gingrich’s surge spooked many conservative Establishment figures who saw the former Speaker as an undisciplined candidate who, if he captured the nomination, would alienate independents and who carried way too much negative personal baggage. Gingrich’s criticism of the former Massachusetts governor for his role as a venture capitalist was seen as an example of Gingrich’s willingness to employ any tactics—including adopting the rhetoric of the Left—to further his own ends. In response, Party elders and Right-wing pundits began openly criticizing Gingrich and warning that he was unelectable.

Romney boosted his prospects by turning in two strong debate performances in Florida. The barrage of negative ads about Gingrich, including one featuring Tom Brokaw reporting about Gingrich’s ethics violations as Speaker of the House also scored with voters. His campaign stressed the notion that Gingrich was a weak candidate who couldn’t beat Obama in November.

The Florida primary exit polls showed Romney winning all segments of the Republican electorate. His message—that he was the only remaining candidate who can defeat Obama by appealing to independents and suburban voters in key swing states—had apparently reached GOP voters. For now, at least, many hard core conservatives have concluded that ideological purity is less important than removing Obama from the White House. That’s good news for Mitt, bad news for Newt.

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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