On Monday of this week it looked as though Mitt Romney was cruising to victory in the Republican primaries. He had won in Iowa and New Hampshire and had a sizable lead in the polls in South Carolina. What a difference a day makes. Over the course of Thursday morning, Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Newt Gingrich and Iowa announced that, upon recount, Rick Santorum, not Romney, actually won the caucus. Later in the day, a slew of polls were released that showed Gingrich leading Romney in South Carolina, building on what was considered a strong debate performance two days ago.
Gingrich entered the final debate with a considerable amount of momentum and capitalized on it. The Romney campaign suddenly seems to be wobbling. The former House Speaker is now poised to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
What are the takeaways from tonight’s debate and what does it mean for the race going forward?
- The sense of inevitability surrounding Romney’s campaign is fading fast. He has now won only the New Hampshire primary, which was almost his home state, and is about to lose in South Carolina. Republican voters have been lukewarm towards Romney all along, but now they are seeing Gingrich as a plausible alternative. If Rick Perry’s endorsement of Gingrich comes with money from Perry’s considerable donor base, the influx of funds will give Gingrich the ability to hang on for some time.
- Romney clearly has something to either hide or worry about in his tax return. He answered “maybe” when asked whether he would follow his own father’s example and release 12 years worth of returns. He has run a remarkably disciplined campaign, has been at it for 8 years now and should have been prepared for full disclosure. Although I doubt there is anything illegal or nefarious hiding in Romney’s tax returns, what is clear is that they will confirm in a lot of voters’ minds, particularly in the South, that he is not one of them. We know that the returns will show he is a very wealthy man, earns a lot of money from investments that are taxed at a low 15% rate, and may not even pay payroll taxes. It is also likely that he has given a considerable amount of money to the Mormon Church, which will remind the evangelical cohort of their religious differences with Romney.
- Despite the fact that he appears to be dodging something by not releasing all of his tax returns, Romney has developed an excellent rhetorical comeback to the line of questioning: “I will not apologize for being successful.” Surely if he does become the GOP nominee, this is the message he will deliver in the general campaign. As the politics of inequality and “class warfare” move front and center, Romney will be ready to defend his career spent climbing to the top .5%.
- Newt Gingrich will not be able to easily divorce himself (no pun intended) from his personal failings. His explosive (and by some accounts historic) response to John King’s question about Gingrich’s ex-wife’s allegations that he wanted an open marriage was instructive. He accused his second wife of lying in her story to ABC News. So now we are in a “he said, she said” situation and that uncertainty simply invites more media scrutiny.
- Rick Santorum can hold his own. Fresh off his newly discovered victory in Iowa, Santorum had his best debate by far. He did an excellent job of making his case for protecting manufacturing and crafting policies to benefit the middle class. Although his policy ideas are outside of GOP orthodoxy– he unabashedly wants to use the tax code to support social goals like encouraging families– he is getting better at articulating them.
- Ron Paul continues to show that he is in this race for the long haul. He has a strong and loyal base of support that will continue with him as long as possible. Note that only Romney and Paul had the organizational strength to get themselves on the ballot in Virginia. Although Paul did not have a particularly fantastic debate tonight, he continued to articulate his isolationist and libertarian visions. How Paul chooses to direct his enthusiastic and loyal supporters in the general election could be of enormous consequence. He is almost as far away from his GOP colleagues on policy as he is from Obama and therefore a third party run does not seem out of the question. In fact, he is the only one on these debate stages that has not taken the time to say that any one of them would be better than President Obama.
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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