A little bit of sanity has returned to the GOP presidential field, with the latest polls from Iowa indicating that quasi-frontrunner Newt Gingrich has fallen back. Yet, Gingrich has been replaced by yet another shock frontrunner: Ron Paul is now on track to win the Iowa caucuses.
After a dozen different bouts in venues across the country, the Republican presidential debates have become a little like NASCAR; part of the thrill of watching is that you might see someone go up in flames.
STORY CITY, IOWA—Before the pro-life seminar film debut last night, Mike Huckabee took to the stage to address his most adoring fans. Iowans still love the former Arkansas governor and winner of the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Sure there were four current presidential candidates on the docket, but many people seemed more interested in what their former favorite candidate had to say.
Ever since Jimmy Carter door-to-doored his way to an eye-opening Iowa victory in 1976—he actually finished second to “uncommitted,” but he beat the other candidates—the first-in-the-nation caucuses have played a supersized role in both parties’ nomination processes. In spite of quadrennial grumblings about Iowa becoming “less relevant,” it never happens. The charm of Iowa isn’t just that it’s usually won with old-fashioned, shoe-leather campaigning; it’s also that the state’s caucus-goers, in both parties, are so full of surprises (see: Pat Robertson, John Kerry, Mike Huckabee). And with the media’s collective binary brain desperate to boil down the GOP race to Gingrich versus Romney, Iowa just might be poised to uncork another shocker in 20 days.
Time to take an intermission from predicting paths to the GOP nomination and imagine what the GOP's general election campaign could look like. Let's take the two most likely nominees. It's relatively easy to imagine how Gingrich would campaign if he became the GOP candidate: the same way he's campaigned for the last few decades. One of Newt Gingrich's defining qualities as a politician is his unwavering confidence in his own ideas. Part of Gingrich's appeal is when you vote for him, you know what you're going to get. This appeal is also why many assume Gingrich will not ultimately be nominated—the Democratic and Republican elite both think the general public won't like what they see.
With his vast trail of scandals and long list of enemies, Newt Gingrich is unlikely to win the Republican presidential nomination, even if he’s leading the polls. But if you were to imagine a path to the nomination for the former House speaker, it would begin in Iowa. A strong win in the Iowa caucuses would provide Gingrich with the momentum necessary to place well in New Hampshire (or win it, under the right circumstances). With the momentum of two primaries behind him, Gingrich would cruise to victory in South Carolina and Florida and finish January as the presumptive nominee.
NORTHWOOD, IOWA—The Welcome Center rest stop on Iowa's northern border lives up to every stereotype associated with the Hawkeye State. The barn-styled building has a cowhide pattern in every corner, and the coffee shop serves delicious apple pie and cheap drip coffee. Brochures tout a range of local attractions, from the American Gothic House to a Maize Maze, Matchstick Marvels (a museum of matchstick art), and the World's Largest Truckstop (one of my personal favorites).
If you can get past the attacks on President Obama, the disregard for actual economic conditions, and the assertion of “philosophical decreptitude” in American liberalism, you’ll find a smart point about the GOP presidential debates in Fred Barnes’s latest op-ed for The Weekly Standard. For your sake, I’ll just post it here:
Besides aiding Obama, Republicans have hurt themselves in numerous ways by letting the debates be the organizing events of the campaign. The stronger candidates have been diminished by appearing, debate after debate, on equal footing with also-rans whose chances of winning the party’s presidential nomination are nil.
There are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of Newt Gingrich's surge over the past few weeks. Sure, he's ahead in recent polls out of Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. But Republican voters have proved fickle this election, bouncing from one candidate to the next gaffe after gaffe. After his campaign almost ran out of money and his staff fled over the summer, Gingrich had one of the thinnest field operations of any candidate—it was so disorganized that he won't even be on the primary ballot in Missouri after missing the filing deadline.
The 2012 Republican nomination has been defined as much by what it lacks as its actual substance. At the start of the year, it was about a lack of any official candidates. Unlike the last presidential election, when Tom Vilsack announced his candidacy just after Thanksgiving 2006, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were running by February 2007, no one wanted to take the early plunge this year. Gary Johnson was the first to officially enter the field in April this year, and most candidates didn't file their paper work until May or June.
Newt Gingrich’s rise to front-runner status has dominated the news cycle for the past few weeks, and the main question that's plagued analysts is this: Will the former speaker be able to overcome his many mistakes—i.e., the affairs—and trounce Mitt Romney? The general arc of these arguments is right: Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich will be the Republican nominee. They are the only two candidates who come close to having the right mix of electability, popularity, and approval by party elites to become the GOP nominee. While the Mitt-Newt showdown may seem inevitable, it is wrong to take for granted that either one will win in Iowa. Given polling there, there is a good chance Ron Paul could win. What would this mean for the rest of the campaign?
Where Newt Gingrich's new Iowa ad waxes poetic about American exceptionalism, Ron Paul goes for the Spike TV production route in his new commercial set to air in Iowa and New Hampshire. Titled "Big Dog," the ad doesn't actually feature Paul himself until the necessary approval tag at the end. Instead, it's a series of flashy graphics set to intense rock music, as buildings explode to represent the federal agencies he would abolish (outdoing Rick Perry by two, Paul has five he would ditch: Education, Interior, Energy, HUD, Commerce) and an 18-wheeler runs over the image of a government bureaucrat.
For a member of the conservative establishment, the last two weeks have not been ideal. Your nominal candidate — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — has not been able to consolidate his position among Republican voters, and has hit a wave of intense criticism as Democrats and Republicans begin to wonder about his core beliefs, or lack thereof. Under normal circumstances, you might switch your vote to another candidate, but the emerging alternative is Newt Gingrich, whose poor record as House Speaker is tarred by affairs, adultery, and a series of shady business ventures. Democrats are gleeful over the possibility of a Gingrich nomination, and for good reason; it would give President Obama a huge advantage in the general election.