Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia Politics will be presidential politics over this weekend, as two of the top three candidates will make Georgia appearances between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Ron Paul’s schedule lists him in Boise Idaho as his only public event on Saturday. Romney visited the state last week. Gingrich arrives tonight, while Santorum will appear in Cumming on Sunday.
Georgia Republicans received a major blow to their hopes to place Georgia squarely as the focus of Super Tuesday on Thursday, as Mitt Romney notified CNN that he would not participate in a debate scheduled for March 1st in Atlanta. Ron Paul sent the same note within minutes. By afternoon, Rick Santorum’s spokesperson was openly questioning if the Pennsylvania Republican would be participating, with CNN then taking the hint and pulling the plug on the endeavor.
The only debate now on the schedule before Georgia’s March 6th Presidential Preference Primary will be held some 1,800 miles away in Phoenix Arizona on February 22nd. The lack of a debate on friendly turf, as well as the loss of an opportunity to reach out to voters in a format that has worked well for him at no cost to his cash strapped campaign is a significant blow to Newt Gingrich.
He has struggled to regain his footing since his convincing win in South Carolina. Gingrich still leads polls in Georgia, whose 76 delegates represent the largest prize up for grabs on Super Tuesday, but is struggling to maintain competitive status elsewhere.
The real news in Republican presidential politics is the competitiveness of Rick Santorum, who is now leading polls in both Romney’s former home state of Michigan and Super Tuesday’s second largest state of Ohio. Santorum can point to two factors for his turn as the possible front runner in the nomination process. He’s the last of the “not-Mitt’s” standing if Gingrich fades. He’s also managed to galvanize evangelical conservatives behind his campaign, pushing social issues to the forefront of the nomination process.
Evangelicals were largely left out of the Republican agenda when the TEA Party elevated Republicans to successful mid-term elections. It appeared social issues were also going to take a backseat during the 2012 primary process as well. Though Santorum has pushed them throughout his appearances, he was also largely ignored during the campaign activities that led up to actual voting.
With negative ads from Romney’s SuperPAC exposing that Gingrich’s negatives can even turn off Republicans – much less independents – when presented with facts about his past personal and public life repeatedly and in their most negative light, nervous Republicans fearing President Obama’s projected billion dollars to be spent on negative ads are taking a look at the last “not-Mitt” standing.
President Obama’s battle with the Catholic Church over requirements to cover contraception and abortion services through their health care plans for employees has also emboldened evangelicals to re-engage in the process. As such, despite sustained unemployment, trillion dollar budget deficits, and the possibility of Israel and Iran moving to open war in the Middle East, the debate for the Republican nomination for President is somehow focused on contraception.
TEA Party activists – the original ones that strictly limited their cause to being “Taxed Enough Already” and not the newer generic conservatives who have morphed newly formed TEA Parties to their own causes and fiefdoms – have to be perplexed that the most clear opportunity to differentiate between an unapologetic tax and spend Democrat and a conservative nominee is now being debated as an issue over access to birth control pills.
Republicans of all stripes must acknowledge that the Republican nomination is a battle not just for control of the party, but for its future. The TEA Party success of 2010 was that of a narrower scope for Republicans, who not only wanted to limit the size of the government but for the issues on which the party Represented activism. A Rick Santorum candidacy in 2012 would mean a return to the Republicans of 2006, when the party ran from hypocrisy in both social and spending issues.
Not coincidentally, that was the last year Santorum was on the ballot. Perhaps prophetically, Santorum lost huge at the top of his state’s ticket, taking many in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation out the door with him.
Republicans are facing the weakest record of an incumbent Democratic President since 1980. Yet they also can’t seem to get out of their own way. The primary process is about winning over party nominees, but independent voters are the ones who pick presidents. Independent voters are concerned about stagnant job growth, falling home values, and rising gas prices. Republicans must fight through the media clutter and focus on these issues – and decide who best represents solutions to them when choosing their nominee for President.