Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The only surprise that came out of the Florida GOP primary Tuesday was the speed and efficiency which the state counted the votes. There were no signs of a butterfly ballot controversy, and with the 12 point spread between Mitt Romney and second place finisher Newt Gingrich, there will be no flip flops on who was declared the winner as there was in Iowa.
Mitt Romney won Florida fairly handily, taking 46 percent of the vote. Gingrich’s 32% combined with third place finisher Rick Santorum’s 13% still falls shy of Romney’s total by roughly 20,000 votes. The party will remain divided on its direction for the future for the next month, as there are no contests on the February calendar that should provide a knockout opportunity.
Caucuses next week in Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota along with a primary in Missouri will select only “unbound” delegates who are not necessarily committed to the candidates they are selected to represent. Primaries on February 28th in Arizona and Michigan are the next opportunity for “bound” delegates. Washington State will then caucus on March 3rd as a quick preview to March 6th’s Super Tuesday, when Georgia will vote with 9 other states. Georgia will be, by far, the day’s biggest prize.
The battles between the two leading contenders are likely to be increasingly negative, and based on faux issues designed to wedge Republican voters away from the other candidate. The reality is that both Gingrich and Romney have ideologically impure actions and statements from their past that represented pragmatic political calculations necessary to advance their own career or agenda at the time. The faithful will continue to use these to demonstrate the other candidate can’t be trusted with the mantle of conservatism, and their candidate is the only hope of defeating the current President.
In short, do not look for intellectual or logical consistency from the Presidential campaign over the next month, as it will only frustrate anyone attempting to make a rational, fact based decision on who is best for Republicans to nominate. In the second tier, Rick Santorum will continue to position himself as a protest vote for social conservatives, as Ron Paul will continue to do the same for Libertarians.
The front runners continue to run a scorched earth program against themselves or their own positions needed for a general election. Newt Gingrich began the campaign by attacking entitlement reform as right wing social engineering. He spent the South Carolina phase of the campaign co-opting the Occupy movement’s talking points against venture capitalism. During the Florida campaign, he extended his remarks to claim that Romney’s capital gains and dividend income came from “not working”, which will make for an interesting argument when defending lower tax rates for dividends and capital gains if and when real tax reform is debated.
Gingrich, who had previously positioned himself as the one candidate who can effectively debate President Obama, spent the week complaining that one debate audience was too quiet, another too loud, and most curiously, that he couldn’t debate someone who won’t tell the truth. Perhaps Newt didn’t spend a lot of time with Congressman Joe Wilson while he was campaigning in South Carolina. Wilson famously expressed his opinion of the President’s ability to tell the truth during an address to a joint session of Congress by shouting “You Lie!” during the speech.
Romney, for his part, is frustrating mainstream conservatives by playing the political equivalent of a prevent defense – sitting on a lead without aggressively finishing off his opponent. The Romney campaign seems so transfixed on not giving voters a reason to against them that they sometimes forget to drive home a message of why conservatives should.
The result is that the conservative punditocracy – those who have a vested interest in keeping conservative activists paranoid about the mainstream media and the “establishment” so they can maintain book sales and ratings – are able to continue to brand Romney as a moderate, liberal, or generally a bad man as Romney remains focused on a general election strategy without first aligning conservatives behind him.
The month leading up to Super Tuesday should be reserved for ultra-party insiders and activists to fight among themselves and settle this once and for all. There is little that will be said or done that will appeal to independent or disinterested voters. Unfortunately, there will be a lot that is said and done that will likely turn those voters off. This is what keeps Democrats smiling.
Despite low job approval ratings and horrible economic statistics, President Obama should still be considered the favorite for re-election in November. For despite all he has going against him, a unified Republican party with a broadly appealing message does not at this time look like it will be one of them.