Dec 10 2011

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GOP Presidential Race at the “Clubhouse Turn”

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It's Anybody's Guess...

In 24 days, Iowans will caucus.

So, in little more than three weeks, what has until now been a hypothetical exercise in nomination politics is going to become real – frighteningly so.

In viewing what is certainly the weakest GOP field since 1996, sharp voters and the commentariat have been tempered all year by a silent and a hopeful expectation that a shining knight would sweep in before the actual voting and save the Republicans from their own apparent mediocrity.

But that didn’t happen.

We are going to have to chose from what is left at the buffet of high poll raters.

First, there is perennial candidate, Mitt Romney.

To Romney’s credit, he is intelligent, well educated and engaged, with a record of accomplishment.

He has worked in the private sector and created jobs. He turned around the Olympics. He managed to get elected governor as a Republican in one of America’s bluest states – no small feat.

But Romney suffers from a formidable lack of authenticity. You need only look at Romney’s most recent campaign ads to see the most recent manifestation. In these ads, Romney decries “career politicians,” negatively contrasting those with government experience against Romney’s jobs-creating, private sector experience.

But the record simply doesn’t support that.

Romney started running for political office since 1993. He lost a Senate bid to Teddy Kennedy in 1994 before winning the Massachusetts governorship in 2002. Romney effectively began running for President before his single term in the Massachusetts state house was over, and having failed to win the nomination in 2008, he’s been running in one manner or the other for the 2012 nomination, since.

With the exception of campaign jobs and political appointments, Romney hasn’t created a job in a very long time.

And there are the flip-flops.

That Romney could be so effectively thrown off his game by legitimate questions on this topic by FOX News (of all organizations) is a testament to the power of this issue and how it simply will not go away.

In 1994, Romney tried to get to the left of Teddy Kennedy on abortion and decried the leadership of the Reagan-Bush years. Now Romney is pro-life and pays tribute to Ronald Reagan.

As governor, Romney implemented what all experts in the field agree was the model for Obamacare. This accomplishment was something Romney touted in his 2008 run, and held up as a model to the nation.

Now however, Romneycare has morphed into some kind of aberrant incubator project suited only for the special needs of Massachusetts.  And that pesky individual mandate? Something that was fine for Massachusetts, but clearly unsuited for the nation.

Thus a President Romney would repeal on a national level what he implemented on a state level?

It simply doesn’t square.

None of it does.

This can’t be a change of heart based on fresh information or a new perspective.  And if it isn’t, the alternative appears to be political calculation or opportunism at a level which would be disqualifying for national office.

Which is manifest in something else; Mitt Romney has never won over national Republicans.

When you tally up all the Republican primary votes from 2008, Mitt Romney received exactly 22% of the votes cast. In a poll in February 2010, Romney was the favorite of 21% of Republican voters. And according to the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average as of today, Romney is favored by 21%.

That is fairly astonishing given the time and money that Romney has put into his presidential bids. After all that effort, more than 75% of Republican voters simply will not support Romney.

In a party that has earned its chops of late on a sharpened ideological brand, Romney is the ultimate technocrat.His passion is apparently not the purity of principle but the pragmatism of problem-solving.

 In this matter, Romney is eerily reminiscent of another governor of Massachusetts known for his smarts, who took a shot at the presidency and won the nomination by being the last man standing – Michael Dukakis.

Did the GOP, which was flat on its back at the end of 2008, which came this far  on the power of grass roots organizing and energy, ready to nominate a technocrat?

It is Romney’s flaw and the GOP’s problem.

And then there is the latest “not Romney,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Like Romney, Gingrich is smart.  Maybe even brilliant.  A fountain of ideas whose cup constantly runs over.

In the debates, Gingrich has been the adult. He appears reasonable, is eminently knowledgeable about government programs, shares credit, and when not agreeing with his competitors, is not disagreeable in his opposition.

He appears both grounded and dynamic.

Substantively,and to his credit, Gingrich is on to something when he describes the challenge of Washington as a matter of effectiveness instead of size. In so doing so, Gingrich frames a completely different argument then the pablum that substitutes for debate in Congress these days, and the material that moderators draw upon in their questions.

 Al of that said, there is no getting past the challenges.

A tumultuous four-year speakership. An ethics violation and fine.  Three marriages. Supporting the individual mandate in health care and appearing with Nancy Pelosi on climate change.

And  then there is Gingrich, Inc., a think tank of ideas that somehow attracted millions from corporate sponsors. But of course, there was no lobbying or influence peddling.

Those blurred lines cross with Gingrich’s rhetoric to create larger problems.

Consider that in a recent debate, Gingrich proposed jail time for former Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank who had been deeply involved in housing policy, “…who profited from the [political] environment, and the politicians who put this country in trouble…” Yet it was Gingrich who accepted $1.5 million from Freddie Mac, ostensibly for “historical services” after he stepped down as Speaker.

Hypocrisy or chutzpah?

As a result, it is inescapable that the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination are intelligent and capable, but also politically flawed.

Neither one of them accurately reflects the base of the Party.

So?  What next?

There are two debates between now and the actual Caucuses. Since these debates have shaped the Republican race, each encounter offers the opportunity for a game-changer that can alter perceptions.

In addition, it is important to remember that upwards of 60% of Republican voters in early states haven’t made up their minds yet, or could change their minds; a remarkably fluid electorate that will keep uncertainty high through the early contests.

There are two other candidates to keep an eye on that are not in the media gaze right now; Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.

Paul has been largely ignored by the media, despite his respectable fundraising and consistent poll position. But in Iowa, where voter intensity is often the strongest motivation to go out and vote on a cold night, Paul supporters are legendary in their loyalty.

Here, the media may be missing something.

According to RCP, Paul is tied with Mitt Romney is Iowa at 17.4%, with Gingrich in the lead with 28%.

But the most recent polls have an unusually small sample size, about 500 voters. That, coupled with Paul’s uniquely devoted following probably underestimate Paul’s strength. Throw in disaffecteds who potentially vote for Paul as a protest to the quality of the field, and you have the ingredients of a upset.

If Paul were to win Iowa, all bets in the Republican race would be off.

Official Republicandom would be in an outright panic. The Mainstreams would be in media nirvana, and Obama political appointees would start popping champagne.

Gingrich’s balloon of inevitability would be popped.

And Romney, who has taken a posture of “dabbling” in Iowa in search of opportunity, could end up a victim; a candidate who neither put in the resources and time to win, nor, having invested something, can escape a  negative judgement of not having stayed out entirely.

It will only reinforce Romney’s 25% problem.

Enter Jon Huntsman.

With Romney wounded (again) and Gingrich deflated, and with the Paul brigade and their pitchforks coming to New Hampshire with a full head of steam, Republicans will be desperate for an experienced and authentic conservative, one who will be articulate enough to go one on one with President Obama.

Jon Huntsman is that candidate.

He is steadily rising in New Hampshire, and has finally begun to showcase his common sense conservatism that requires no qualifiers.

In a race between Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Huntsman, only one candidate can claim to be a consistent, serious conservative capable of being elected President.

Jon Huntsman is that man.

Right now it is only one of dozens of scenerios.

In any event, for Republicans in the coming weeks, a strong tolerance for ambiguity will be a requirement for a sound night’s sleep.

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