The outcome of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary has turned the race upside down with presumed front-runner Mitt Romney losing badly to New Gingrich 41% to 27%.
This is an astounding turnaround from Gingrich’s poor showings in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and further scrambles the GOP primary field.
Gingrich’s strong showing in a conservative place like South Carolina is not wholly unexpected, although the state’s popular GOP governor Nikki Haley had endorsed Romney.
South Carolina shows that this may be a volatile race. But the upcoming January 31 Florida primary, with a more moderate electorate than South Carolina, could turn the race back to Romney who also is expected to do well in several early February contests. But then again, who knows.
What does this South Carolina outcome portend?
It means more tension and it again pits the moderate GOP Establishment against the Tea Party conservatives. It’s an old story.
Some observers were hoping that a string of Romney wins would put the primaries in the past so that Romney could focus on Obama. But the other side of that coin is that an extended primary could actually benefit the eventual GOP nominee by relieving him of becoming the one clear target for Democrat attacks until later on.
And despite the disorder associated with feuding candidates, an extended primary also keeps the Republicans in the news with opportunities to promote their agenda and attack Obama.
Primaries like this one are notorious for upsetting the plans of the “experts” anyway. Who can forget Obama/Clinton in 2008? It was fratricide after literally several years in which Hillary was the assumed nominee.
There is no need for conservatives or Republicans to panic over South Carolina, however. Because Obama already has sunk to the bottom among many key voting blocs. Democrats are as worried as Republicans at this point.
For the GOP this primary conflict is an old story. The Establishment wing of the party never even liked Ronald Reagan despite his success at revitalizing the GOP. And who could forget the bad blood between McCain and Bush in 2000.
So now Newt Gingrich is going to anoint himself the conservative alternative to Establishment figure Romney and many conservatives are going to go with Newt in the name of political payback to the Establishment.
Gingrich in fact has a lot going for him from the conservative point of view – he led the 1994 Republican revolution; he led the way in Congress to balanced federal budgets; he advocated the welfare reforms that Clinton ultimately signed; he is very smart; he has been strong in debates; he has trashed Obama without apology; and he aggressively has taken on the media.
The big problem, however, is Newt Gingrich as a person. First, he has not been such a pure conservative, praising FDR and Teddy Roosevelt and supporting an individual health insurance mandate.
And second he has alienated millions of Americans throughout his career, including people in his own party, and for good reason – because Newt is not the most likeable guy in the world. Polls show him with very high public negatives, as much as -30 in some polls unfavorable/favorable. And current polls show Gingrich much less likely to be able to beat Obama compared to Romney.
But all that could change…
To put it bluntly many people just don’t like Newt because Newt often seems like he is out for only one thing… Newt Gingrich. If you asked people whom they would rather drink a beer with, Gingrich or Obama, a clear majority would probably pick Obama at this point.
But that all could change…
And Gingrich’s checkered personal life is as much a subject of debate as his strong and sometimes conflicting and controversial political stances. His ex-wife’s recent claim that Gingrich wanted an “open marriage” is going to linger no matter the truth. And it does in fact comport with Gingrich’s randy image.
But as they say, nice guys finish last. So perhaps Gingrich’s aggressiveness and his darker, untamed side are good things. Gingrich is just being out front about himself and his agenda. He is saying that he has his flaws but that he will take on Obama and lead the nation with toughness. This appeals to many people who see Romney and the GOP Establishment as too timid in confronting the socialist Democrat juggernaut that controls our nation.
Newt is the stereotype Republican – a gruff, smart, white guy who knows what he knows, who does not take any nonsense, who is not afraid to speak his mind, and who is not politically correct regarding racial issues or other “sensitive” topics. And this is both a positive and a negative. Thus if he were the nominee, he would be strong in some ways and weak in others – like anyone else, of course.
So Republicans and conservatives have a dilemma: Do they elevate a man like Newt who is aggressive and who seems somewhat cold and clinical at times but who is outspoken and bold on behalf of the conservative cause? Is this the type of leader that Republicans need as the GOP standard bearer for 2012? Because these certainly are good characteristics in a president.
Or is Mitt Romney’s “softer” approach better in the general election?
Romney is really a classic successful white Mormon/Christian American man. He is wealthy (estimate $270 million), disciplined, smart, handsome and a good businessman. Romney seems like a nice guy with a beautiful family. He seems happy, unlike Obama and his wife or like the abrasive Gingrich.
His life is an open book. He probably is a decent person in private. Romney’s one wife (Gingrich is in his third marriage) seems like a nice person; she surely never has disparaged America as Michelle Obama did. Romney is like your wealthy neighbor – he may be somewhat aloof and you may not be best friends, but he is not a creep either.
But there is a hard edge to Romney. Don’t believe for a second that Romney is like McCain – someone who doesn’t really care about being president. Romney wants it badly; this is his second try. And he will do whatever he needs to do to win. And with this South Carolina loss, he probably will change his strategy somewhat and drop the Mr. Nice Guy stuff if he perceives it as harming him.
Watch him in the Tampa debate Monday night (January 23) to see if he becomes more openly aggressive.
Just before the South Carolina primary word was leaking out that Republican Establishment figures were unhappy that Romney was falling in the polls, that he was not being aggressive enough, that he was too nice, and that Gingrich was rising again.
On the other hand, reality has shown that Romney has repeatedly slammed Obama and has used scorched-earth tactics in the primaries. So Romney is no Pollyanna, rest assured. In fact he may only appear that way temporarily as Gingrich wins one race.
But these polls have been all over the place and this race is still very unsettled. Remember last summer when Gingrich’s New Hampshire staff quit and everyone considered him dead? Or that most observers counted John McCain out in Summer 2007 until he surged in the primaries?
This all can change, rest assured. Quickly. After all Jon Hunstman came in far ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire and then dropped out.
And the Republican Establishment which backs Romney has not put the full force of its power behind Romney… yet. But they will when necessary like in Florida. They clearly do not want Gingrich as the nominee and have a lot of power to stop him.
So Republicans and conservatives face an ongoing debate over the soul of the GOP. And this is nothing new. And for the Establishment to count out the conservative wing of the party is folly. And for conservatives to dismiss Romney and the Establishment is folly as well. They must all work together to defeat Obama. The only question is: Who will lead?
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