Romney only decided to make a serious effort in Iowa in November, when the extremely volatile nature of the Republican nomination campaign caused him to lose his initial frontrunner status to a number of conservative challengers. Each crashed and burned after proving to be unable to withstand close scrutiny, as well as a fatal vulnerability to negative attacks. It became apparent to Romney and his strategists that a failure to make a competitive showing in Iowa would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, and make it more difficult for him to wrap up the nomination quickly after his expected victory in New Hampshire, where he holds a comfortable double digit lead. They assumed that even a respectable second or third place finish in Iowa would be sufficient for Romney to maintain the credibility of his candidacy, since he had never been expected to do well with Iowa’s mostly Christian conservative Republican voters.
WHY GINGRICH PEAKED AND FELL
Romney’s well-oiled campaign quickly mobilized a strong ground operation in Iowa, certainly far superior to that of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was unable to take advantage of his surge in the polls early last month, because he had no campaign team. His lead quickly evaporated under a barrage of negative ads supporting Romney. The well organized operations of Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry also took turns in attacking the former Speaker.
Gingrich’s rapid climb to the top of the polls was mostly the result of his dominating performance in the candidate debates. However, the last of the debates was held more than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, leaving Gingrich at a serious disadvantage. He lost the free forum the debates offered to respond to the criticism of his rivals. He also lacked the money and local organization to respond in kind to the avalanche of negative ads against him in the Iowa media. His campaign rapidly lost momentum, and his poll numbers began to fall as quickly as they had risen immediately after Herman Cain’s campaign self-destructed.
IOWA VOTERS SWITCHED
The shortcomings of Gingrich’s Iowa campaign became especially noticeable when compared to the well organized operations of his opponents. By the time he finally began to respond to the specific criticisms, most anti-Romney Iowa conservatives had already switched their allegiances to other candidates, either the dangerously radical Ron Paul, or former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Ron Paul’s surge in the polls two weeks ago quickly drew media attention to the darker aspects of his campaign, including his opposition to continued support for Israel, his wildly liberal libertarian ideas, and his penchant for supporting dark conspiracy theories.
Santorum, like Paul, had done his homework in Iowa. In the final days of the campaign, when Paul’s credibility as a candidate came under attack, and Gingrich was still struggling to respond to the negative ads, Santorum was the main beneficiary. However, aside from the Iowa’s narrowly conservative Republican constituency, Santorum’s platform is unlikely to win elsewhere.
Another conservative candidate whose campaign made a major effort to buy a credible finish in the Iowa caucuses was Perry, but his mostly negative campaign did little to erase the serious doubts about his competency created by his repeated lapses and mistakes earlier in the campaign.
In the end, the main beneficiary of all these developments was Romney, who has emerged as the only electible and unscathed candidate in the field.
THE BAD OLD NEWT EMERGES ONCE AGAIN
By contrast, Gingrich, who is still seen as Romney’s main Republican opponent, seemed to lose his focus, and was thrown seriously off message.
After remaining largely passive to the attacks upon his record for almost two weeks, preferring to run what he called a “positive campaign,” Gingrich belatedly recognized that the avalanche of negative ads was hurting him and that he needed to fight back more aggressively. He began by focusing his attacks on Romney’s tax proposals, which he called too “timid” and “moderate,” but then lapsed into more personal attacks on Romney’s methods and motives. This failed to address Gingrich’s need to answer the specific criticisms leveled by his critics, and in some cases, actually seemed to confirm their allegations that he is too undisciplined and vulnerable to defeat Obama in November.
As the drumbeat of criticism from his opponents, supported by his longtime enemies from his years in the House, took its toll, Gingrich began to flail out verbally. The media immediately seized upon these counterattacks as proof that beneath his mature and convincing performances in the debates, lay the same old Newt, who became notorious for his abrasive attacks on his opponents while he was a House Republican leader. His penchant for attacking the political jugular eventually enabled his enemies to destroy his reputation. He was demonized in the liberal media. He eventually resigned from the speakership and give up his House seat, taking responsibility for the stinging defeat suffered by Republicans in the 1998 midterm election.
THE SWIFTBOAT COMPARISON
In the final days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich accused the Romney campaign of trying to “buy” an election victory. He compared its tactics on him to the “swiftboat” ad campaign which eventually sank Democrat John Kerry’s candidacy and enabled President George W. Bush to win re-election in 2004 by a close margin.
Asked whether he felt that he had been “swiftboated,” Gingrich replied, “I feel Romney-boated.”
Gingrich predicted that the amount Romney will eventually spend on his campaign nationwide will rival the spending of billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has poured at least $261 million of his own money into his mayoral campaigns.
“Romney would buy the election if he could,” Gingrich said, ignoring the fact that for the general election, President Obama has set a staggering $1 billion fundraising target to defeat his ultimate Republican challenger.
DESPERATION AND INCOMPETENCE
Gingrich’s bitter counterattack against Romney was seen as a sign of his growing desperation as he saw his chances for a key victory in Iowa, which once had seemed so close, slipping away. It came as a Des Moines Register poll put Gingrich in fourth place, behind Romney, Paul and Santorum, after leading the field by a wide margin in early December..
Some GOP analysts believe that it may already be too late for Gingrich to regain his former frontrunner standing.
“These negative ads that are running against him are effective,” Iowa strategist Craig Robinson said. “There’s not going to be any singular moment where he can regain the footing. Nothing will allow him to pull the break in these polls.”
In addition to the inherent problems in his record and political personality, the continued disarray in Gingrich’s national campaign organization has been a continuing embarrassment. Its incompetence was revealed again last week, when it failed to submit enough voter signatures to put his name on the ballot of the March 6 GOP Virginia primary, where Gingrich had been leading in the polls. The mistake could give Romney an easy primary victory in a state that Gingrich should be able to win. It was yet another reminder that even the most qualified candidate can’t get elected without proper funding and organization.
GINGRICH DOWN BUT NOT YET OUT
The latest polls show Gingrich falling into third place in New Hampshire, 4 points behind Ron Paul and a daunting 30 points behind Romney.
Nationally, he has fallen into a virtual tie with Romney, but still far ahead of the rest of the Republican field. While he still holds leads in the two states with primaries this month, South Carolina and Florida, it is not clear whether those leads will survive disappointing finishes by Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For Gingrich to recover, he needs to solid wins in both South Carolina and Florida. That would set up a decisive nationwide confrontation with Romney in the March 6, Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses. But it is highly doubtful that he could pull that off with no organization or money, as well as the old questions about his character, consistency and aggressive political instincts which were raised during the Iowa campaign.
Republican strategist Alex Costellanos told CNN, where he is a regular political commentator, that “when a candidate loses because voters don’t know him, he can regroup. If he crumbles because they do know him, his campaign has nothing to say.” Costellanos also predicted that the epitaph for Gingrich’s candidacy is likely to read, “They liked him least, who knew him best.”
OTHER IOWA ALSO RANS
In Iowa, the late surge for Santorum was merely a reaction to disappointment with other conservative candidates rather than positive support for his campaign platform. Santorum has largely failed to address the economic concerns which are of greatest interest to voters today, rather than the social and moral issues that Santorum likes to talk about.
The appeal of Ron Paul’s candidacy is even narrower. His support within the GOP is confined mostly to economic conservatives, while his isolationist and pacifist views are clearly out of touch with mainstream Republicans. His radical libertarian views are much closer to the permissive attitudes of the 1960s Democrat left than the respectable moral standards of the GOP.
RON PAUL IS ANTI-ISRAEL
Much of Paul’s recent surge of support was a protest vote by fiscal conservatives against the other candidates in the field. Many of those supporters are expected to leave him now that his credibility has been effectively undermined by the exposure of his deeply flawed record under close national media scrutiny.
Particularly disturbing is Paul’s open opposition and even hostility to continued economic and military support for Israel. Eric Dondero, a former member of Paul’s staff, revealed that Paul “sides with the Palestinians, and supports their calls for the abolishment of the Jewish state, and the return of Israel, all of it, to the Arabs.”
In a blog posting, Dondero added that Paul “wishes the Israeli state did not exist at all. His view is that Israel is more trouble than it is worth, specifically to the America taxpayer.”
Leaders of the Republican Jewish Coalition were already well aware of Paul’s hostility toward Israel. As a result, the group excluded him from a debate of presidential candidates they held in early December. At the time, the group explained, “there is no reason to allow Paul to pretend he is anything but an extremist who is far outside of the mainstream, especially when it comes to issues concerning the U.S.-Israel alliance.”
Paul has also been challenged to answer for a libertarian newsletter which he published for ten years which included blatantly racist and anti-Israel statements. An article in the New Republic reported that Paul published the monthly newsletters throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s under his own name. They contained a steady stream of openly racist remarks and outlandish conspiracy theories. When questioned about them now, Paul feigns ignorance, claiming that he doesn’t know who wrote them. The newsletters were published by a corporation owned by Paul under a variety of names during an interruption in his congressional service. The articles were unsigned, under Paul’s name in giant letters on the publications’ mastheads.
Many of the most damaging derogatory comments were in a 1992 commentary in the Ron Paul Political Report. It examined the Los Angeles riots, and concluded that, “the criminals who terrorized our cities, in riots and on every non-riot day, are not exclusively young black males, but they largely are.”
A scathing report by the Washington Post on Paul’s record as an 11-term congressman from Texas reveals that of the 620 bills that Paul has sponsored since 1976, only 4 have made it to a vote on the House floor, and only 1, which called for the sale of a customhouse in Galveston, Texas, actually was passed into law.
Mainstream voters are averse to his extremist views. While his fiscal policies appeal to some financial conservatives, his social agenda is too far to the left of the consensus for anyone to take him seriously as a presidential candidate.
ROMNEY’S FRONTRUNNER POSITION CONFIRMED
Coming out of the Iowa caucuses, and with victory widely expected in New Hampshire next week, Romney’s position as the de facto frontrunner nationally in the Republican race now seems to be more secure than it has been in months. He is running an effectively error-free campaign, even though his level of support among grass roots Republicans has been slow to reflect that. Romney has continued to build support in the GOP’s Washington establishment, from both elected officials and senior party leaders.
Meanwhile, the actions of the president’s re-election campaign have implicitly endorsed Romney’s claim to be the Republican candidate with the best chance to beat Obama in November. In the final days before the caucuses, the Obama campaign dispatched its own team of Democrat political operatives to Iowa in order to attack Romney’s record.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has also attacked Romney’s record as a businessman by asserting that the private-equity firm he once headed, Bain Capital, was responsible for worker layoffs. At a DNC press conference, Randy Johnson, who was a factory worker at the American Pad and Paper (Ampad) plant in Marion, Indiana, said that he lost his job after Bain Capital bought the company in 1994 and closed the factory, throwing 200 people out of work.
Johnson accused Romney of being “out of touch with the average person. I really think he didn’t care about the workers.” Johnson now holds a job with the United Steelworkers union which is supporting Obama’s re-election.
Based upon their performances in Iowa, none of Romney’s conservative challengers have been able to convince Republicans that they are viable political alternatives to Romney, and up to the task of defeating Obama in November.
ROMNEY FOCUSING ON OBAMA
Romney and his campaign want to return their focus to attacking Obama rather than Republican competitors.
Speaking to New Hampshire voters last week, Romney accused Obama of “trying to turn us into an entitlement nation,” which is inappropriate for “a nation that has always been powered by the pursuit of happiness.”
Romney also said, “I’m not going to spend my time bashing the Democrats and attacking them day in and day out, because that makes it impossible to sit down and work together [after I’m elected president.]”
He explained that, “a leader listens to the people who are one’s opponents, and you find ways of bringing people together. . . Being governor in Democratic Massachusetts taught me I had to get along. I couldn’t attack the speaker of the House or the Senate president because I had to work with those guys to get anything done.”
Describing how he would beat Obama in November, Romney said that he would borrow a winning line that Ronald Reagan used in a 1980 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter when Reagan asked the national television audience, “Do you think you’re better off than you were four years ago? We know the answer to that one,” Romney said with a smile.
CHOOSING BETWEEN ENTITLEMENT AND OPPORTUNITY
Romney told another New Hampshire audience that the voters’ choice between him and Obama would be a choice between an “entitlement society” dependent on government welfare and an “opportunity society” that enables businesses to flourish.
He explained, “even if we could afford the ever-expanding payments of an entitlement society, it is a fundamental corruption of the American spirit. The battle we face today is more than a fight over our budget. It is a battle for America’s soul. . .
“Once we thought ‘entitlement’ meant that Americans were entitled to the privilege of trying to succeed in the greatest country in the world. Americans fought and died to earn and protect that entitlement. But today the new entitlement battle is over the size of the check you get from Washington.”
Romney then pledged that as president, he would loosen federal regulations, exploit domestic energy resources, cut taxes and cap spending to create an environment in which he said the private sector could reach its full potential. “We’re bigger than the misguided policies and weak leadership of one man,” Romney said. “America is bigger than Barack Obama’s failures.”
There is a growing air of confidence around the Romney campaign, although it is taking nothing for granted. His most recent bus tour was called “Earn It.” Some GOP strategists think Romney learned a valuable lesson from his first presidential campaign in 2008, that he must make the sale when it counts, which is now, when Republicans start voting in caucuses and primaries.
His schedule is in flux, but only because he is attempting to maximize all of his opportunities. He hopes to take advantage of what now looks like a totally unpredictable environment in Iowa, but has been careful not to neglect New Hampshire, which he lost in a surprise upset to John McCain in the 2008 nomination race.
A GOOD THREE WEEKS FOR ROMNEY
The past three weeks have been particularly good for Romney. He has picked up a series of valuable endorsements, starting with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who is a favorite of conservative Tea Party activists. He was endorsed by the editorial page of Iowa’s largest paper, the Des Moines Register. He also was endorsed by former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who was the GOP’s presidential candidate in 1996. Finally, he received a valuable boost from former President George H.W. Bush.
“I think Romney is the best choice for us,” Bush told the Houston Chronicle, but stopped short of giving Romney a formal endorsement.
Bush said that he has known Romney for many years and knew his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, who also once ran for the GOP presidential nomination. Bush said that he would support the younger Romney because of his “stability, experience, [and] principles. He’s a fine person,” Bush added. “I just think he’s mature and reasonable, not a bomb-thrower,” in an implied criticism of Gingrich.
Bush also had complimentary things to say about his fellow Texan, Governor Rick Perry, declaring, “I like Perry, but he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere; he’s not surging forward.”
However, when asked directly about Gingrich, Bush said, “I’m not his biggest advocate.” Bush said he felt betrayed by Gingrich in 1990 when he lobbied against Bush’s tax policies in the House. Bush had just broken his “no new taxes” pledge, and needed party leaders to stand with him. The subsequent divisions in Republican ranks ultimately contributed to Bush’s defeat when he ran for a second term as president in 1992.
Romney also had the support of other nationally prominent Republicans to help him campaign throughout Iowa in the last days before the caucuses. These included New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and South Dakota Senator John Thune.
While the Rommey campaign is now more confident, the candidate knows better than to try to sit on a lead, especially in light of how quickly things have changed in the GOP race so far.
As many commentators have noted, this has been the most unusual and unpredictable GOP presidential primary campaign in history. However, while other candidates have risen and fallen, Romney has been steady, if not spectacular, as the candidate at or near the top since the beginning.
TIME TO PROVE HE IS A WINNER
Given his political record, it is doubtful that Romney will easily win the complete trust and support of the GOP’s conservative voter base. Endorsements from conservative or tea party leaders and newspapers help, but he will still have to do much more to convince that vital part of the GOP that he really shares their conservative values, and put their lingering doubts about his sincerity to rest.
His strongest argument in the eyes of most Republicans is basic, that he is the GOP candidate with the best chance of beating Obama in November. Now that the caucuses and primary season has begun, it is time for Romney to finally prove that his superior vote-getting ability is real.
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.