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Romney's Rebound

The Republican presidential primary campaign is finally settling down into an orderly political process performing as designed, testing each candidate’s strengths and exposing their weaknesses, while challenging the best of the contenders to learn from their mistakes and emerge more seasoned and effective. After a chaotic six months in which every week seemed to usher in an exciting new potential frontrunner, followed by their embarrassing and unexpectedly sudden demise, the first four statewide primaries and caucuses in January succeeded in whittling down the large field to just four survivors, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, each with their own distinctive constituency, personality and mission.

Romney, the initial frontrunner, has by now weathered his share of campaign ups and downs, and in the process has proven that he has the toughness needed to take a hit and bounce back and learn from his mistakes. He has also learned how to better connect with Republican voters who have long harbored doubts as to whether he really shares their conservative values, and whether he is up to the challenge of taking on and beating Barack Obama in the general election.
 
If Romney does become the next president, historians will look at his performance in Florida last week as a key turning point in his odyssey to the White House and his evolution as a candidate.

 

Emerging from a tough double digit loss to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary, Romney reinvented himself as a national candidate over the next 10 days. In the process, he succeeded in turning the tables on Gingrich, beating him at his own game. Romney outperformed and ambushed Gingrich in two televised debates, which had been the former Speaker’s primary vehicle for exciting Republican voters.

 

As it did in Iowa, Romney’s campaign in Florida demonstrated an ability to effectively wield its superior resources. On Florida’s airwaves, it overwhelmed Gingrich with negative ads. The Romney campaign also mobilized many of the former House Speaker’s colleagues in Congress, as well as other respected members of the GOP who viewed the emerging possibility of Gingrich winning the nomination with deep dread.

 

GOP PARTY LEADERS GANG UP ON GINGRICH

 

Such fears prompted party elder statesmen like Bob Dole and Elliot Abrams to speak out publicly against Gingrich’s candidacy, sometimes deliberately exaggerating their charges and distorting the historical record. Dole, still angry at Gingrich for following confrontational policies as House Speaker which hampered his 1996 challenge to Bill Clinton’s re-election bid, characterized Gingrich as erratic, unreliable and certain to lead the Republican Party to defeat in November. He was a “one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway. . . He had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall.”

 

Abrams did far worse. He falsely implied that Gingrich once said that Reagan was “inadequate and will ultimately fail.” In fact, the full text of that speech, which Gingrich delivered on the floor of the House, reveals that Gingrich was actually complaining that some of the policies being followed by Reagan’s administration did not live up to the president’s own high ideals and his accurate assessment of the Soviet menace.

 

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who served while Gingrich was speaker, said in an interview that Gingrich was “not really a conservative,” while conservative commentator Ann Coulter has argued if Gingrich wins the nomination, Obama’s reelection would be guaranteed. Romney said that these conservative and party leaders turned against Gingrich because they were convinced that he could not lead the Republicans to victory in November, while Gingrich claimed that they knew that as president he would upset the entire Washington establishment.

 

Romney and his surrogates deliberately exaggerated the seriousness of Gingrich’s ethics violations, which were far less serious than the charges that House Democrats concocted against him, while trying to minimize Gingrich’s significant accomplishments during his years as Speaker and the leader of the GOP. While Gingrich cried foul, such exaggerations are considered standard operating procedure in hard fought political campaigns. Even worse, Romney’s charges against Gingrich unnerved him and threw him off message, allowing Romney to win the two Florida debates.

 

WILD SWINGS IN THE POLLS

 

The rapid swings in the campaign had a dramatic impact on the polls in Florida, which fluctuated wildly during the period. After Romney’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, he held a commanding 18 point lead over Gingrich in Florida. Suddenly, following the two South Carolina debates and Gingrich’s impressive January 21 victory there, Gingrich’s poll numbers in Florida spiked by 15 points, while Romney’s fell by 10. But after last Thursday’s Florida debate, in which Romney succeeded in ambushing Gingrich, the poll trends reversed. Romney re-established a commanding 12-point lead in the polls going into the voting.

 

Romney emerges from the Florida primary with far more than just the convention delegates he won. He has finally developed effective answers to the questions about his personal wealth and his record with Bain Capital as a corporate turnaround specialist which had tripped him up earlier in the campaign.

 

Romney’s personal demeanor and campaign style on the stump is much more effective now than it was when he ran for the nomination four years ago, and in the first few months of this campaign. But the most visible recent improvement in Romney as a candidate is in his performance in the debates. He has become more relaxed, more difficult to rattle, and more capable of responding quickly and effectively to attacks from his opponents.

 

COMING FROM BEHIND IN FLORIDA

 

The turnaround in the polls after last Thursday’s debate was so dramatic that even Gingrich and his supporters tacitly conceded defeat in Florida several days before the voters went to the polls. Meanwhile, Gingrich promised to stay in the race for the long haul, hoping to start catching up with Romney’s delegate count on Super Tuesday on March 6.

 

While Romney’s come from behind victory in Florida may not yet be decisive, it certainly solidifies his position as the clear frontrunner in the race. It has also gone a long way toward silencing those who criticized him as an ineffective candidate doomed to be outclassed by Obama in the general election.

 

Romney’s campaign had always anticipated him winning the Florida primary, based upon the overall political configuration of the state. But after losing his momentum in the loss to Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney was forced to revamp his strategy and come up with a new, much tougher debate and campaign approach.

 

He executed a remarkable recovery in Florida by returning to attack mode and keeping up the pressure on Gingrich with an avalanche of negative ads, criticism from party establishment figures, and sending out hostile GOP Congressmen to harass Gingrich at his own Florida campaign events. This new, more aggressive Romney has rubbed some independent voters the wrong way, even as they have thrown Gingrich on the defensive, neutralizing his main appeal to the growing anti-establishment segment in the Republican voter base, his unmatched ability to attack his targets.

 

WHY NEWT ATTRACTS SUPPORTERS

 

Tea Party activists love Newt’s ability to attack the liberal media and leaders of the big government establishment from both parties. He can rile up the party base better than any other politician.

 

“I love his outspokenness,” said Rhonda Douglas, 49, a waitress who attended a Gingrich rally in Coral Springs, Fla. “I’m tired of this sugar-coating nice guy,” she said, referring to polished, scripted politicians like Romney. “They don’t mean anything they say.”

 

But many analysts do not believe that Gingrich’s aggressive demeanor is the way to win a national election. For example, in the 2008 election, Sarah Palin as the GOP vice presidential candidate was able to energize the Republican base with similar attacks, but her ticket still lost badly to Obama and the Democrats. The party leadership believes that Romney’s calm professional demeanor, clean-cut image and success in business and as Massachusetts governor better qualify him to lead the party to victory against Obama in the general election.

 

Tea Party and conservative leaders like Palin, who are uncomfortable with Romney’s mixed or moderate record on health care and social issues, have spoken out against Romney’s attacks on Gingrich,. They warn that such attacks will damage the party’s chances in November, regardless of who emerges with the nomination, But others argue that for the GOP to beat back Obama’s ruthless class warfare attacks, the nominee will need every dirty trick which helped Romney to defeat Gingrich in Florida, and then some. In politics on this level, the cynical old baseball saying is still true. “Nice guys finish last.”

 

Romney is no longer apologizing for his personal wealth, his career as a successful venture capitalist and businessman, and his record as governor of Massachusetts. He now can respond to the persistent questions from the right wing of the party about the authenticity of his conservative credentials, and no longer ignores them while sitting on his lead.

 

MISTAKES BY ROMNEY’S CAMPAIGN TEAM

 

Romney’s experienced political team has run a very smart political campaign, but it has not been perfect. In Iowa, after launching an advertising blitz which destroyed Gingrich’s initial lead, the Romney campaign shifted its focus to the surging Rick Santorum, and didn’t finish off the wounded Gingrich. This allowed Gingrich to stage his comeback to win in South Carolina, an outcome that the Romney campaign never anticipated. This set up the confrontation this week in Florida, which suddenly became a crucial test for Romney’s candidacy. Another defeat to the underfunded Gingrich in a crucial November battleground state would have raised grave doubts in the GOP establishment about Romney’s chances for beating Barack Obama.

 

Romney’s campaign team also did a poor job initially in preparing him to answer opponents’ questions about his Blain Capital business background, his personal wealth, his 14% effective tax rate, his financial holdings in the Cayman Islands and Swiss bank account, all of which they must have known had to come out eventually.

 

All of those mistakes had been corrected by the time Romney faced Gingrich in the Florida debates. They also prepared Romney to turn variations on the same questions against Gingrich, throwing him off balance and neutralizing his usual advantages in the debates.

 

ROMNEY GOES ON THE OFFENSIVE IN A FLORIDA DEBATE

 

It was Romney rather than Gingrich who delivered the lines which earned applause from the debate audience last Thursday. At the very start of the debate, Romney pressed his attack on the former House Speaker’s position which would allow some illegal immigrants to legally stay in this country, an issue which had been explored in the previous debates.

 

When Gingrich defended his view that the law should “allow the grandmother to be here, legally, with some rights,” so that “he or she can finish their life with dignity within the law,” Romney responded that America’s illegal immigrant problem “is not 11 million grandmothers,” and then voiced a personal objection to a Gingrich campaign ad which called Romney “anti-immigrant.”

 

“That’s simply inexcusable,” Romney said, noting that his father was born in Mexico. He then scolded Gingrich, declaring that, “the idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don’t use a term like that!”

 

Romney accused Gingrich of supporting the impractical idea of establishing a permanent American lunar colony on the moon solely to win the support of Florida voters living near the Kennedy Space Center. “I spent 25 years in business,” Romney said. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’”

 

GRANTING NO QUARTER

 

Romney was determined to press his advantage, and refused to give Gingrich any quarter in the debate. After the first few exchanges with Romney, Gingrich passed up an offer by the debate moderator to continue his criticism on the campaign trail against the extent of the former Massachusetts governor’s disclosure of his financial status. “How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening we’ll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?” Gingrich asked. The other two participants in the debate, former Senator Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, seemed agreeable, but Romney then deliberately baited Gingrich by saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here? And then added, “I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who’ve been successful.”

 

A TURNING POINT

 

That was a turning point for Romney. For the first time, he was the one on the offensive in a debate rather than Gingrich, and he did it effectively.

 

He was just waiting for Gingrich to question him about his investments in Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and with Goldman Sachs, “which is today foreclosing on Floridians.”

 

Romney quickly struck back by saying, “Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments? You also have investments for mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

 

Taken by surprise, Gingrich was momentarily stunned and then said meekly, “All right.” After the debate, Gingrich sought to explain his failure to respond effectively to Romney’s accusation about his own investments by saying, “I wanted to fact-check. I wanted to make sure he was as totally dishonest as I thought he was.” He later told anyone who asked that Romney’s debate performance was “the most blatantly dishonest performance by a presidential candidate I’ve ever seen.”

 

Clearly, Romney will be well prepared if and when Obama tries to use the same issues against him in the general election.

 

SANTORUM’S BEST MOMENT

 

The only time Romney was on the defensive in that debate was when former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum criticized his Massachusetts health care program for having the same individual mandate to own health insurance or face a fine that Obamacare has. Santorum’s debate performance was widely praised, but since his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Santorum has been unsuccessful in gaining much support in the primaries, or financing for his campaign. As a result, his conservative candidacy is not expected to last much beyond Florida.

 

Ron Paul also had a good debate, and provided the comic relief. He is in the race primarily to use it as a platform for his libertarian ideology and does not care how poorly he does in the upcoming primaries.

 

GINGRICH WON’T DROP OUT

 

The repeated and increasingly hostile confrontations between Gingrich and Romney in the Iowa, South Carolina and Florida campaigns and debates have left their mark. Even though Romney is back in the frontrunner’s position, Gingrich is angry and determined enough to stay in the race to take his revenge on Romney, despite all of his talk in the early debates about obeying Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, do not speak ill of fellow Republicans.

 

Romney has the advantage in the upcoming contests, Nevada’s caucuses on February 4 and primaries in Arizona and Michigan on February 28. However, Gingrich would be favored in three of the primaries taking place on Super Tuesday, March 6, in his home states of Georgia, as well as in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Those victories would be sufficient to keep Gingrich in the race, and his vendetta against Romney alive to the end of the primary season.

 

On Monday, Gingrich promised his supporters at a rally in Sarasota, Florida, a “wild and wooly” primary battle that will end with his victory. Through the day he and Romney continued trading harsh personal attacks. Romney told Gingrich to “look in the mirror” if he wanted to understand why he was falling behind in the Florida polls. Gingrich responded by calling Romney a “pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase moderate.

 

On Tuesday, as Florida Republicans were voting, Gingrich conceded that Romney would probably win, but suggested that if the conservative voters would unite behind him, he would be able to defeat Romney in the upcoming primaries.

 

Clearly, Gingrich is determined to keep challenging Romney in primaries and caucuses for as long as he can do so.

 

The Obama campaign believes that extending the GOP primary season will work to their advantage by exposing more of Romney’s weaknesses and using up his resources. But running in more primaries will also give Romney a chance to further hone his campaigning skills, and fine tune his attacks on Obama for the general election.

 

APPRECIATING CONVENTIONAL ATTRIBUTES

 

The past several months of the GOP campaign have been an exciting and unpredictable roller coaster ride, as one flamboyant conservative candidate after another rose to challenge Romney’s status as the initial frontrunner, only to fall again under the pressures and close scrutiny of the campaign. By comparison, Romney’s bland conventionality and his classic attributes have become more appealing.

 

Many are coming to realize that he is a better choice as the GOP standard bearer than a more mercurial candidate like Gingrich. While Newt has a greater ability to inspire the party base, he also comes with a much greater danger of self-destructing due to a careless remark, or an unexpected problem emerging out of his past.

 

While even Romney’s supporters acknowledge that he is not an ideal candidate, at least his liabilities are well known, and none of them seem to be insurmountable. For GOP party leaders and elected officials, that is a much better option than constantly worrying about what unpleasant surprise about their presidential candidate may await them in tomorrow’s headlines, dragging down the
entire ticket.

 

THE GAME PLAN FOR BEATING OBAMA

 

Establishment Republicans believe that Romney is a much more suitable candidate to carry out their basic game plan for defeating Obama. It has long been accepted that the best way for the GOP to assure victory in November is to turn the election into a referendum on Obama’s job performance in his first term.

 

The key to doing that, first of all, is to field a GOP presidential candidate whose faults are not serious enough to make him the main issue in the campaign. By this criterion, Romney is clearly superior to the other three candidates in the current GOP field. He is not hobbled by the heavy burden of personal, political and ethical baggage which Gingrich carries. He is not a rigid conservative ideologue and moralist like Rick Santorum or a quirky, libertarian isolationist like Ron Paul. On the positive side, Romney has impressive credentials as a successful businessman, as the governor of a state who was able to work successfully with members of the opposing party, and as a devoted husband and father with a commitment to his religious values.

 

The missing piece was Romney’s ability to respond effectively against Obama’s class warfare rhetoric and his redistributionist economic agenda which were the themes of the president’s State of Union address. Obama is certain to make them the centerpieces of his campaign, and to paint Romney as a poster child for the evils of capitalism, wealth and success. It wasn’t until this past week that Romney showed the ability to answer those charges effectively and to turn Obama’s attacks on free market capitalism and the American dream back against him.

 

The Washington Post contributed to this story.