One Last Chance to Blame George Bush


If President Obama loses to Mitt Romney next week, wouldn’t it be ironic if he blamed George Bush?

Brief Post about “Undecideds”


Here’s my take on the much talked-about “undecideds” in this general election:

Undecideds won’t go for President Obama. This explains why they’re “undecided.” They’ve had plenty of time to decide (four years), so why are they undecided? Either they aren’t really undecided and are planning to vote for Mitt Romney, or they’re undecided about Romney, if not about Obama. In the first instance, Romney wins. In the second, undecideds stay home—unless the undecideds make a last minute decision as undecideds to vote against Obama by voting for Romney. In other words, undecideds represent a referendum on President Obama.

Ditto for independents.

This assumes a rational electorate. And if the electorate can be counted on to be rational, this bodes well for Romney. Of course, the electorate cannot be counted on to be . . . . well, you know.

“There You Go Again”?


Pundits seem almost universally agreed that Mitt Romney needs to have a “Reagan moment” in his first debate with President Obama, now just two days away. The moment they have in mind is when Ronald Reagan said, in response to incumbent Jimmy Carter about misrepresentations of Reagan’s record and platform, “There you go again.” I remember that moment. It was timely and it was compelling.

Now, several decades later, Reagan’s words probably don’t have quite the ringing effect for young adults born since then. I myself have to recall the political climate at the time and Reagan’s uncommon demeanor in the moment to appreciate how effective those words were. (Reference to Reagan’s thumping of Carter has become something of a nostalgic rostrum. Many have probably over-rated that particular moment in judging that it was the turning point, very late in the campaign, giving Reagan an advantage over Carter. I think people felt, in the last analysis, that Jimmy Carter just couldn’t be trusted with a second term. Sound familiar?)

What matters in the immediate political climate—infused with media “coverage”—is that the stakes have been raised for Romney in the upcoming debate. He has to convince people that he can walk on water. Better yet if he can demonstrate his power to walk on water by doing it onstage. That’s all we ask. If he can manage that, then he might get our attention, we might think about voting for him, and a few of us might even actually vote for him.

This is silly. But it’s reality.

So I’ve been thinking about what Romney could say that would achieve the expected (or desired) effect. But is this the right concern? Let’s remember that Reagan spoke with apparent spontaneity in his remark. And it may well have been spontaneous. If so, Reagan had to have enjoined the debate with such a frame of mind that he could say, with such intensity and frankness, what he did when Carter kept up the spin.

Maybe the lesson to be learned, then, is that Romney needs to have the right instincts, cultivated by months of campaigning and by his knowledge of current events and Obama’s response, as he walks onto the dais to go toe-to-toe with the President.

One risk for any debater is a kind of “over-preparation.” In one sense, you can never over-prepare. But it is possible for a debater’s extensive preparation to hamstring his performance during a debate. One reason is that spontaneity may be compromised. And spontaneity, when well-timed delivery is good, is powerfully persuasive.

Romney needs, at least, to do two things during his preparation. First, he needs to be prepared for whatever can reasonably be expected from Obama, both in terms of his attack on Romney and in terms of his defense of his own Presidency. Second, he needs to be clear about what he can do to control the agenda and get the upper hand during the debate. (Of course, Obama needs to prepare in the same way, but there are reasons to think that Obama is at a disadvantage if Romney is effective. If Romney presents well, and Obama struts the usual stuff, there is the possibility that Obama’s presumed presentation skills will appear to be a dance around the tough issues. In other words, speaking in his usual formidable style may, ironically, cause Obama trouble. It may be observers’ perception, “There he goes again!”)

Reagan said, “There you go again.” Romney doesn’t need a cute, canned sound bite that could be his undoing if it isn’t delivered properly. He needs to be relaxed and comfortable with himself, unintimidated by the President. If he rehearses what he believes deep down to be Obama’s greatest vulnerabilities, if he is in touch with his deepest  convictions about the risks we face and what needs to be done about them, then he won’t be intimidated. Nothing is more effective than the courage of one’s convictions.

Nevertheless, Romney could be effective if he finds a way to say, not “There you go again,” but “Here we go again,” in reference to the pile-up of unpalatable effects of Obama-style leadership. Romney should be able to recite what many perceive to be mistakes made during the past four years. The most recent event in the litany is the recent debacle in the Middle East, including the murder of an under-protected American Ambassador and the conflagration that threatens to worsen. “Here we go again. And we, the American people, can’t take much more of this.” This is what we should be thinking after this first debate, and Romney has a prime-time opportunity to make it happen. We should be wondering, “Does anybody really know what an Obama second term would be like?” The first term wasn’t like many who voted for him expected. Have they learned that they still have no idea what to expect?

Campaign Management and Government Spending: Romney vs. Gingrich


Now’s the perfect time for Newt Gingrich to make a certain eye-opening argument against the prospects of a Mitt Romney presidency. But first, some background.

Newt Gingrich launched his campaign on a shoestring and he has kept it going in the same fashion. Yet here he is today, with renewed vitality and front-runner status. Contrast Mitt Romney. Romney has been running for president for at least five years—longer, in fact, since his brief stint as Massachusetts governor was part of his everlasting campaign—and spending money like the dickens to ensure that he gets what he wants.

Where would Mitt Romney be without his money to bolster his campaign? With lackluster performance on so many fronts—most visibly during the debates—Romney has been sustained by his fiscal capacity to pay his way to the nomination. He has a large and expensive campaign staff and he has paid dearly for his media advertizing.

“Dearly” is probably not the right word, since how much is a “dear” price to pay for something is relative to how much money you have to begin with and how much you want what you think the money will buy you. In these terms, the cost to Romney has not been so dear. He’ll go one making tens millions of dollars year-after-year, even if he loses the nomination.

As we’ve seen with every president, financial management is a huge component in the unpublished portion of the job description. In fact, Romney has been campaigning on his strength as a financial wizard in the business world, as if this is an especially valuable asset for the contemporary American presidency. He’s been quite explicit about this in recent days.

Now consider, not only the money that Romney has raised—and, indeed, earned—but also the money that Romey has spent, the goals for which he has spent it, and the manner in which he has spent it. I offer his campaign expenditures as Exhibit A. (One might, as well, investigate Romney’s method of throwing money after money in failed business enterprises, as well as in those that have succeeded. But this would be time-consuming and less rewarding as an argument-maker.)

Here, then, is the argument I would be making—starting now—if I was Newt Gingrich:

Governor Romney is also Businessman Romney. He’s recently released his tax return for 2010. It reveals that he made 21.6 million dollars in that one year alone. This figure explains whatever success Mitt Romney has had during this nomination cycle: he’s paid for it. And that makes Americans uncomfortable. As long as Mitt believes he’s spending his own money, and he still has plenty of it, he’ll spend, spend, spend. If he were president today, do you think he would do anything different? Once hard-working Americans “pay” their taxes, the federal government acts like its theirs to spend as they see fit. Would Governor Romney be any different? Where is the evidence, during this campaign, that he knows how to be thrifty? My campaign has been running on big ideas and the energy of hard-working Americans who don’t want big spenders taking over the national treasure. During my campaign, I’ve been spending like it’s your money that I must manage responsibly. And that’s because it is your money. Together, let’s win this nomination. And together, let’s bring this country back in line with real American values.

This argument has several strengths:

  • It would make a virtue of Newt’s comparatively limited treasure chest. (“I couldn’t even defend myself while Romney’s PAC poured money into negative television ads ahead of Iowa.”)
  • It would draw attention to the downside of Romney’s largess.
  • It can be made without begrudging Romney’s material success. The aim is not to engender class warfare, but to draw attention to differences in management styles and fiscal responsibility.
  • It is succinct and intelligible. It makes sense and it will make sense to a lot of people.
  • It can be made during a debate, at almost any moment Gingrich chooses.
  • It can be made during brief press conferences.
  • It can be made with such clarity that other people will be able to articulate the argument, too.

This, at least, is how I see it. What about you? Share your thoughts about this argument in the comment box for this post!

Poll: Is a Mitt Romney Nomination Inevitable?


Some believe that Mitt Romney’s nomination by the Republican party is inevitable, or, for those who hedge their bets ever so slightly, “all but inevitable.” Romney, who knows better than to believe it, hopes they’re right.

“Inevitability” is a state of mind. Getting people to think a Romney nomination is inevitable is a way to ensure that Romney is nominated. That’s the power of perception.

What do you think today, with another debate to happen in less than three hours and the South Carolina primary five days from now? Take this simple poll, and feel free to leave a comment!

Whose Capitalism?


Mitt Romney doesn’t need to defend capitalism. He needs to defend his version of capitalism. This is the essence of Newt Gingrich’s challenge to Romney in recent days.

Newt has been slapped down, once again, by establishment Republicans who believe that Newt is “hurting the party” with his latest challenge to Romney. They’re saying that Romney will have a more difficult time beating Obama in the general election if his Republican opponents don’t quit what they’re doing.

The chief problem with this silly posturing is that Newt Gingrich, unlike the Republican establishment, simply does not accept their determination to nominate Mitt Romney. Why should Newt care whether establishment Republicans are coming unglued over his effort to put more pressure on their “favorite”? He aims to win the nomination, with or without their support. He wants to demonstrate that they’ve bet their money on the wrong horse.

Time will tell whether he succeeds.

But there is a deeper problem with the Republican backlash against Gingrich. And it has a couple of important components. Fundamentally, establishment Republicans are characterizing Newt’s challenge as an attack on capitalism, and they claim to resent this because Republican candidates for the presidency are supposed to fall in line with their version of capitalism. Their attack on Gingrich is simply disingenuous; they aren’t telling half the truth.

This is because Newt is at least as committed to capitalism as Mitt is. But Newt is suspicious of Mitt’s version of capitalism, according to which it’s fair for anyone to make a buck at anyone’s expense, by whatever means and with whatever effects, as long as it’s legal. An ethically sensitive—and morally sensible—capitalist should repudiate such an attitude.

Here’s the last line in Romney’s latest defensive campaign ad:

We expected the Obama administration to put free markets on trial, but as The Wall Street Journal said, “Mr. Romney’s GOP opponents . . . are embarrassing themselves” by taking the Obama line.

Wouldn’t you like to know who at The Wall Street Journal that said that, what kind of column it was, and whether this is the uniform attitude of everyone at the WSJ? And who cares what the WSJ says if they’re wrong? The WSJ should welcome a debate about the character and genius of capitalism and its several varieties. Newt Gingrich wants to have that debate, and he may get it at the next Republican presidential debate before the South Carolina primary.

It’s possible that Romney’s version of capitalism is as innocent as the wind-driven snow. But let him explain it without asserting that Newt is attacking the free market.

It’s also entirely possible that if Romney’s opponents among Republican candidates don’t quit what they’re doing, Romney won’t have to worry about facing Obama because Romney won’t be the Republican nominee. Of course, if that happens, there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth among Republican party fixtures.

I would be as happy to see that as I would be to witness a Lincoln-Douglas debate between Newt Gingrich and President Obama.

New Hamphire Is History; Now What?


It concerns me that Romney could win the nomination with a plurality and yet with actual support well below 50%. I’m skeptical about a victory over Obama under these conditions.

I notice that some 77% of the entire vote in NH went to Romney-Paul-Huntsman. This suggests  that NH, which sends only a handful of delegates to the convention, is far from being even broadly conservative. This is not representative of the entire country.

So you might think that Romney, Paul, and Huntsman will not do so well in SC in less than two weeks.

But Romney’s more or less hollow victory may have a psychological effect in SC and beyond. People like to go with a perceived winner (the bandwagon effect). And Romney, I believe, is about to get very clever. So far, he’s been extremely careful not to appear too Conservative, and this has served him well.His immediate concern has been to court NH voters. With SC looming, I predict that he’ll begin to portray himself more overtly as much more conservative than people now think. Newt needs to be watching for this and pounce on it as further evidence of “pious baloney.”

Pundits were saying tonight that Newt’s rebound strategy for the past few days has backfired on him. I don’t think that, and I hope Newt doesn’t either. It’s silly to see a causal connection in the correlation between Newt’s low support in NH and his recent more vigorous response to Romney. Possibly, the pundits who represent the “establishment” are worried that Newt will continue to apply the pressure and thus mitigate Romney’s chances of winning in SC.

Romney delivered a great speech tonight. But close examination suggests that he is another cynical politician. The victory had only just been won and he was immediately starting to use Reagan-speak (i.e. “a city on a hill,” etc.). His strategy will be to try to convince conservatives that he’s a safe bet. So watch for him to roll out all the buzzwords and themes that resonate with true conservatives.

If Romney wins the nomination, and it very much looks tonight like it’s his to lose, it will be a sign that the Tea Party has lost traction, just when it needs to be boiling. Such a grassroots movement is very hard to sustain without a prominent leader beating the drums. So far, the movement’s most prominent spokesperson has held back. But look for Sarah Palin to back a candidate as we get closer to SC. It won’t be Romney. My hope is that she is conversing with SC state senators and representatives and persuading them to back a particular anti-Romney candidate. And I still hope that’s Gingrich.

Newt needs a string of strong sponsors whose support would (1) signal the continuing viability of an anti-Romney effort, and, crucially, (2) consolidate support for a single candidate who needs those votes. That candidate needs to be Gingrich.

I don’t know if any of the candidates will be able to beat Obama, but I have grave misgivings about Romney’s chances. Garnering a mere 37% showing in NH, of all places, indicates a real lack of enthusiasm. As it was, they’re saying that voter turnout was surprisingly low tonight. If we don’t have a candidate that people can get excited about, Obama will get a second term, and this could look more like a mandate than the last election!

I think we need to roll the dice for the only candidate who will keep things exciting and shake things up. I still think Gingrich is Obama’s biggest election worry. The president is probably feeling more confident as Romney’s cache expands. He can see that it isn’t expanding with support from an enthusiastic majority.

Why Newt Gingrich Probably Still Is the Candidate with the Most to Offer Conservatives


Conservatives at this hour need to be asking themselves two questions:

  1. Why has Mitt Romney been stuck with Republican support in the low 20 percent range for, like, forever?
  2. Why has every candidate who has threatened Mitt Romney lost traction within a few weeks of gaining momentum?

Finding the right answer to these inter-linked questions is like shooting fish in a barrel. It has two parts, one for each question:

First, the “Republican establishment inside the Beltway” wants Romney. Second, true conservatives—those of us planted firmly at the grassroots of the recent Great American Conservative Movement—do not want Romney. What puts officious conservatives at odds with real conservatives in this equation is something that both know: Mitt Romney is not a conservative. The strongest evidence that Romney is not a true conservative, and is therefore a poor choice for ousting Obama, is that he is stuck with low numbers in polls among registered Republicans.

But here’s the secret that “establishment Republicans” and all the liberals themselves do not want conservatives to sort out before it’s too late: Mitt Romney can win the nomination with puny poll numbers as long as conservative support continues to be spread out over several conservative candidates. Add up the collective support for conservative candidates and Romney’s numbers don’t mean zilch.

So conservatives need to wise up, and they need to get with it soon. In Iowa, this means the next few days—five days, if you want to be exact.

Here’s what needs to happen:

One of the conservative Republican candidates needs to be swarmed with support by the conservative base. This candidate needs to have the full complement of tools to take the fight to Obama and the liberal left. The candidate has to be perceived as a serious threat to the establishment. The candidate must be able to tip the scales decisively as a bold, articulate, well-informed, and scrappy individual whose own policies are as far apart from Obama’s as you can imagine.

Who disagrees? That’s what I thought.

Next question: Who might that be?

This isn’t rocket science.

We can dispense with Ron Paul immediately. A vote for Ron Paul is a vote for Obama. Period. I wouldn’t be surprised if the alleged Ron Paul supporters would vote for Obama in the general election if Ron Paul himself won the Republican nomination!

Who’s next? Consider Rick Perry. He’s trying to come from so far behind, and for good reason, that he should give it up and go home now.

That other guy, the former governor from Utah—you know, what’s-his-name. He hasn’t experienced the slingshot effect at all throughout this process, and he isn’t going to, either. So count him out. And I mean, count him out by not voting for him in your caucus or your primary. (This is offered in the spirit of a helpful suggestion.)

We come, then, to two look-alikes (as far as politics are concerned): Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum. Now these are two candidates who represent a lot for conservatives to like. And until Santorum’s “sort-of surge” in Iowa polls, he and Bachman have run similar numbers in the polls. They both know that they need a strong showing in Iowa. In other words, they have to come out as the big surprise in Iowa so that the rest of the nation will sit up and give them a second look. The trouble for them is, only one of them can do this or the strategy fails . . . decisively. And at this moment in time, a critical moment at that, it looks like it’s Santorum who has the wind at his back. But that’s if we’re comparing him with Bachman.

I like Michelle Bachman. I was impressed with her first appearance in the debates, and I thought she acquitted herself well most of the time. Sure, she’ll stand up to Obama. But it won’t look like much of a threat, I’m afraid. And it’s kind of embarrassing to hear her saying these days that she wants to be “the Iron Lady of the United States,” comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher (who was a great partner with Reagan on the international stage in the 1980s). As determined as she is, Bachman just doesn’t have the gravitas to run the gauntlet and win. (At one time I thought she might make a good vice presidential candidate, but now I’m not so sure.)

I predict that Michelle Bachman will be out of the running soon after Iowa. In light of the urgent need for consolidation behind a conservative candidate, opposite Romney, it would make sense for her to step out gracefully now. She doesn’t really show any inclination to do that, so it will be up to Iowans, even those who like her, to help her make this vital decision.

At this point, this would probably consolidate votes around Rick Santorum. Rumor has it that some leading evangelicals in Iowa have urged one of the two candidates to step away from the fray. They apparently—and correctly—perceive the threat the two of them pose to a sound defeat of Romney in their state caucus.

Santorum might not benefit as much from a Bachman withdrawal if she declared her support for someone else, like Newt Gingrich, for example. How much this would help Gingrich is hard to say. And whether Bachman could back away from her severe criticism of Gingrich in recent days and throw her support with him is doubtful. Newt will have to fend for himself, I’m afraid.

And so we come to Newt Gingrich. If it comes down to Rick vs. Newt for grassroots conservatives, what happens?

Here’s something to chew on, slowly and methodically: Rick has never garnered high poll numbers at the national level. Notice, his “surge” is limited to Iowa. This is probably because of his single-minded calculation to woo Iowans, in hopes of emerging as the Republican surprise that he needs to be to gain any traction. Newt, on the other hand, recently enjoyed a fantastic surge in national support. This was matched in Iowa.

And it looked very promising for him. But what happened? The Republican establishment rose up in concerted, presumptuous, and mean-spirited opposition, thus revealing their latent affection for Romney.

(Suppose Rick Santorum comes out on top or in a dead heat with Romney in Iowa less than a week from now. Will this be a significant threat to Romney? I don’t think so. Where does Santorum go next? New Hampshire would be the lock for Romney that everyone is already predicting anyway. And what kind of organizatin does Santorum have in the South? An Iowa victory would be small consolation if it doesn’t ignite national support as the new “anti-Romney” candidate. And I don’t see how it would. Santorum is tenacious, a decent debater, and truly conservative. But this doesn’t keep Obama awake at night worrying that he might have to run against Santorum. Santorum lacks that special panache that will be needed to knock Obama out.)

Let’s get back to Gingrich. Fellow conservatives, let us ask, Why have we neglected him at such a time as this?

I truly hope that if Newt does not win united support among conservatives it will be because of their wisdom in such matters. But there is the very real possibility that it will come down to being manipulated by the power-brokers in Washington and on network and cable TV.

There are two obvious reasons for Newt’s recent dip in the polls. First, he has been savaged by pontificating “conservatives” of the Republican establishment (for example, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and, more local to my area in Southern California, Hugh Hewitt). Second, the other conservative candidates, smelling blood and needing desperately to improve their own standing in the polls, have blasted Newt for being less than truly conservative.

Michelle Bachman, especially, has stooped to disappointing depths in this regard. Her grip on the full breadth of conservative policy has always seemed ham-handed, but her recent and opportunistic attacks on Gingrich have made this obvious. She has decried his claims to be a conservative, and rehearsed contrived allegations without reserve or grace. I suspect has she hoped, by this means, to steal for herself support from a weakened Gingrich. And this recent lifting of the veil to show that even she can be less than candid and fair has made me more sure that she should not be given further encouragement in her bid for the presidency. Frankly, I believe she may have spoiled any chances she had even to be invited to be the vice presidential running mate. (I remember being impressed very early on that Newt Gingrich liked and supported Michelle, and wanted to see her do well. I recall thinking that he might even then have been thinking that she could be good running mate material. Not any more, I’d say now. I invite you to go back and review the early debates.)

By now you’ll know that I give Newt Gingrich the best chances of beating Romney for the nomination and for beating Obama in the general election. Of the true conservatives still in the running, he is the only truly Reaganesque one of the bunch. Conservatives need to remember how much they would like to have Reagan back. That’s not possible. He was one of a kind, and what a kind he was! But he imprinted some few who still carry the DNA. And Newt Gingrich is one of them. Mitt Romney surely is not. And Rick Santorum and Michalle Bachman, for all of their virtues (and they are considerable), just aren’t the Reagan-types of our era.

We need to face another serious obstacle to shoring up support for the single best conservative candidate to ruin Romney’s nomination prospects. Among grassroots conservatives, evangelicals carry considerable electoral weight. And evangelicals, for perfectly intelligible reasons, have gravitated toward candidates who are more overtly in line with their theological convictions. (Many speculate that this, too, is a reason why Romney has not done well among evangelicals. But I think that reasons for conservative evangelical reluctance about a Romney presidency are more complicated than this.) On this score, Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum are the more pleasing candidates for some evangelicals. Both are quite public and transparent about their Christian faith, and Bachman identifies very explicitly with evangelicalism. But it has to be said: This is not a sufficient reason to cast a vote for Santorum or Bachman. In fact, this may even be a reason for evangelicals to withhold support.

Let me explain.

Suppose an evangelical wins the presidency. Would that be cause for rejoicing among evangelicals? Not necessarily. For starters, Jimmy Carter bellowed his evangelical pedigree and got himself supported. Consider how that turned out. He is the most disgraced former president alive today. Other reasons are more to the point, however.

First, evangelicals owe their fellow citizens fair consideration in the effort to work together toward the common good as a pluralistic society. Constituency voting is, on a certain level, shameful. Though we owe our Christian forebears a great debt for bequething to us a legacy of democracy and associated values, this did not make us a “Christian nation” in some theocratic sense.

Second, evangelicals, of all people, should be able to distinguish between society’s spiritual and religious problems and society’s political problems. And they should know better than to think that the very real religious and spiritual problems of our society would be healed by concentrating political power in the hands of evangelicals. (I have lived and work among fellow evangelicals my entire life, and I shudder to think what kind of society ours would be if power was to be consolidated in their hands.)

This brings me to a third consideration. If the Christian church seeks to impose its will on the American public by electing political leaders on the grounds that they are the true saints of the world, then the Church will one day (and once again) be embarrassed by the inevitable failures and spotty track records of those presumed saints. Better to elect a good and decent person, with a stout sense of America’s special standing in the world and her Constitutional groundedness, than to insist on someone with more limited political skills whose decency we associate with our own religious convictions.

I have often thought—indeed, I trembled at the thought even during the last election cycle—that an Obama victory based on constituent support might prove an embarrassment to the constituents who supported him, without regard for his political expertise or sensibilities as a human being. I trust that some who voted for Obama for no better reason than this do now regret doing so and will be more circumspect on this next go around.

It’s very possible that we who are evangelicals have been the slowest to wake up to current political realities, and that we stand in the way of a successful campaign against Obama. Let us be rid of any vain hope that a political fix for all of America’s problems depends on electing one like ourselves in every respect possible. That is a foolish ambition. It is one of which we should repent, before God himself.

Let us, instead, use the wisdom we have been given by God—feeble though we are to steward this wisdom faithfully—to cast our political support for the one we truly believe, all things considered, can bring the change many of us believe is desirable and possible.

I suggest that this calculation must take into consideration the need for a broad conservative movement in this country to consolidate around a single worthy candidate, who will no doubt be flawed like the rest of us, and to reawaken to the peculiar privilege it is for serious Christians to live in a democratic Republic.

Evangelical Support for Newt Gingrich/Early December 2011

Suggested Reading:

“Newt Gingrich strong with Iowa evangelicals, Tea Partiers” (December 6, 2011)

Updates:

• Wintery Knight has started an interesting Facebook thread discussing this post. Click here.

The GOP Tea Party Debate


Caricatures: GOP Presidential Debate Participa...

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

The Republican candidates have done two debates this week. Tonight’s debate was the best of three. The questions were focused and the candidates showed vim and vigor. Those lagging behind Romney and Perry in the polls needed to up their game, and two of the candidates did. Michelle Bachman shined and Rick Santorum did pretty well. Bachman is still in the game. Santorum is probably going to continue to lose traction.

Until tonight, I was looking forward to hearing more from John Huntsman. After tonight, I don’t care if we never hear from him again. I don’t see any potential there for this guy to break out. He’s glib, the opposite of self-effacing, and petty.

Ron Paul’s only real potential is as a spoiler. Tonight, as a senior congressman from Texas, he played the spoiler to Rick Perry. Paul’s presence will be a nuisance to Perry as long as Paul stays in the race.

Perry proved vulnerable on several points, including his HPV vaccination plan and his handling of illegal immigrants. Michelle Bachman may have succeeded in raising Perry’s weaknesses on these points to a level of appreciable resonance with his own base. Perry was on the defensive most of the evening. He limped through one defense after another in front of ultra-conservative Republicans, many of whom want to see Perry do well. And he was booed following one of his comments about the immigration issue.

Sometimes Perry looks and sounds like he’s channeling George Bush. He’s not an effective debater. I have real doubts about his ability to survive under close scrutiny in future debates.

Mitt Romney hit harder than he has in the past, but with the aplomb we’ve come to expect from him. I believe his problem is that he is uninspiring. He also comes across like a real establishment-type politician. But he’s in this race for the long haul and is the candidate to beat if Perry peters out. Romney projects stability. But he looks like the rich guy he is and hasn’t been comfortable reaching out to Tea Party Republicans who will, for better or worse, make a difference in the Republican nomination process.

Herbert Cain is a refreshing presence at these debates, and he’s doing a number of things well. Can he go the distance? It will be interesting to see. It’s nearly certain that he won’t get the nomination and I doubt that he would be anybody’s first choice as a vice presidential running mate. He could have a place at the table in the next president’s cabinet, though. He’d make a fine good-will ambassador.

That leaves Newt Gingrich.

At every debate so far, Gingrich has excelled. John King of CNN agrees. Newt Gingerich has had “back-to-back-to-back strong debate performances.” King blames Newt’s low poll numbers on his age. He thinks that voters are looking for the younger candidates to get the job done. I’ve wondered about this. But Newt does look like the adult in the room. This could turn things in his favor. When others are petty, kicking sand in each other’s faces, Newt just keeps taking the battle to Obama. He understands that the coming election will be very much about whether Obama should be re-elected. Newt is singularly capable of challenging Obama head-to-head. I suspect he’s the candidate that Obama fears the most.

So why is New Gingrich lagging in the polls?

1. Gingrich is especially disliked by the liberal media. They almost uniformly acknowledge his political prowess. His debating strengths are readily acknowledged. But he’s dangerous to the liberal cause.

2. The media prefers to cover the sensational. This explains, I think, the favor that Rick Perry enjoyed before even announcing his candidacy. Gingrich’s strengths will not be noticed as long as attention is poured on candidates whose substance remains a mystery.

3. Gingrich is the elder statesman of the group. He’s been around longer than anyone, except Ron Paul. He isn’t such a fresh face and he hasn’t been leading the new Republican charge to change the way business is done in Washington.

4. Gingrich has a couple of personal negatives to overcome. These were bigger news earlier on. If he begins to garnish renewed attention, they may return to haunt him.

These aren’t deal-breakers for Newt. The personal issues may already have been aired as much as they can be, and his interval of invisibility may have been good for him on this score. Ron Paul is polling in double digits, and Gingrich is down around 7%—about even with Bachman. Ron Paul is an anomaly. He won’t last. That should give Gingrich room to move up. And if Perry peters, as I expect (hope?), he can move up dramatically. If Gingrich endures and moves up in the polls, that will be a sensation and the media will have to cover the story. And he isn’t ancient. John McCain was ancient.

Here’s how Gingrich improves his standing, if he can hang in there long enough. The Perry fanfare fizzles as his debate performance deteriorates. This depends on Perry’s own limitations. It’s also reinforced by Bachman’s vigorous and effective attacks, as seen in the Florida debate. Bachman needs to play the spoiler long enough for Perry’s cache to diminish. In due course, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, and Rick Santorum need to drop out of the race. Herbert Cain must follow suit. That would leave Romney (a known quantity, but a force to be reckoned with), Perry (paired down to size), Michelle Bachman (maybe), and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich’s stature is sure to rise if there’s ever a two-way or three-way debate in which he participates. He can hold the Tea Party folks if their favorite candidates drop out, and he can win with independents who are weary of Obama.

But time will be a factor for Gingrich. He needs to win in the South Carolina primary. Rick Perry has the edge there now. Bachman could do well in SC, but for Perry. If the New Hampshire primary comes early enough, John Huntsman could cut into Mitt Romney’s strength there. This could minimize the effect of New Hampshire on a Gingrich bid.

I have no idea what to expect from Iowa, though it’s expected that Bachman could do well and is out of the game if she doesn’t.

Rick Perry has deeper pockets than Newt Gingrich. But Obama has deeper pockets than everyone. And I view it as cynical to suppose that the one with the most campaign money is the likely winner for that reason alone. (What kind of treasure chest did John McCain have during the last Republican primary?)

All of this may be wishful thinking. I would like to see a contest between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama. This would be a contest between two radically opposed ideologies on a national stage that is itself deeply divided. Gingrich’s penchant for clarifying ideas might force Obama to be more explicit about his own ideology. The electorate would be faced with starkly contrasting agendas defended by more-or-less articulate spokesmen.

There is one other variable that is important to Newt Gingrich’s chances: Sarah Palin has to remain in the sidelines . . . .

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