A Kinder, Gentler Conservative for Independent Voters
Mitt Romney’s sweep of five northeastern primaries this past week removed any doubt that he will be the Republican presidential nominee come late August at the party convention in Tampa.
Even Newt Gingrich, of all people, seems to see the handwriting on the wall and has begun the slow, painful process of transitioning from a once high-riding presidential contender to an average citizen bogged down by $4 million in campaign debt.
Romney has now begun his orchestrated pivot to the middle, attempting a reset of a campaign that for so long tried with mixed success to find votes on the far right and must now shift direction to look for support in the middle of the political spectrum.
Now, with the party nomination apparently within his grasp, Romney no longer has to worry about Gingrich or Rick Santorum on his right flank and can broaden his search for support to include independent voters, who will play their traditional crucial role in the November election. Romney can set aside most of his hard-edged appeals to conservative ideology and focus instead on the Obama record.
Expect to hear a lot in the coming months about weak economic growth, high unemployment and gasoline prices, and a general sense of drift among voters as to where the country is heading.
Romney will urge voters first and foremost to render a judgment on President Obama. You hired him four years ago, he’ll say. Do you want to rehire him for another four years? They will want voters to make a snap judgment in line with Ronald Reagan’s famous debate question about incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
The Obama strategy is focused on getting voters to look at the election differently. Make it more of a choice than a referendum. Expect the Democratic argument to go something along the lines of, “sure, things are not what we hoped, but they are getting better, and turning the government back over to the people who messed it up in the first place is NOT the answer.”
Part of that strategy will be to tie Romney to his hard-right statements during the Republican primaries and trying to build a case that he is just another rich Republican who wants to run the country like a business — help the rich and forget the poor.
Given all the money to be spent in this election cycle, especially by the independent groups and wealthy individuals backing the two candidates, expect to see a lot of ridiculous TV attack ads from both sides that will make simplistic accusations and boil down complicated issues to lowest common denominators.
In recent days, though, some members of the Republican establishment are urging Romney to broaden his campaign songbook and not limit it to constant attacks on Obama’s record.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Florida governor Jeb Bush say Romney needs to project a more positive face on his campaign, and he needs to be a lot more specific about what he would do to fix the economy.
At some point it won’t be enough just to blast the Obama record. Romney will have to be a lot more detailed about how he wants to cut the budget, cut taxes and change the highly polarized partisan tone in Washington.
At this point many experts say there is little doubt that the 2012 matchup of Romney versus Obama will produce one of the starkest ideological choices in decades.
At the heart of the debate will be huge differences between the candidates over the role and size of the central government in Washington.
Newt to Self — I’m Finally Done
To say it was a long time coming would be an understatement. Somehow, former House speaker Newt Gingrich finally realized that with Romney winning all five primaries last Tuesday, his chances of becoming the nominee were officially zilch. It’s still unclear why it took so long.
To be fair, Gingrich’s quest for the nomination has been the proverbial roller-coaster right from the start. His campaign self-destructed early in 2011 and he was written off by the media and Republican elites alike.
But Gingrich stayed alive through free television in the form of the countless Republican candidate debates through much of 2011 and into the early part of 2012. Gingrich was always an adept debater and quick on his feet, even back to his early days as a back-bencher in Congress in the 1980’s.
So as he did well in the debates, Republican voters began to take notice and compared him with others who were found wanting like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and yes, even Rick Santorum. So Gingrich had his renaissance late in 2011 and the buzz got so strong at one point that he confidently predicted he would be the nominee come the party convention in Tampa in August.
But Gingrich has left a long political trail over the years and there proved to be plenty of fodder to remind voters about his foibles, thanks to the Romney money machine and the miracle (annoyance?) of relentless negative ads on TV.
So Newt was blown up in Iowa, allowing Romney and Santorum to emerge. Gingrich made a comeback just before the South Carolina primary, thanks again to a strong debate performance when he hammered a reporter for asking about dissolution of his second marriage.
But that proved to be his last hurrah. I was in Florida in the days preceding the primary there and the TV attacks on his record and background were relentless, even to the point that voters we talked to who supported other candidates actually felt bad because Gingrich was the target of so many attacks.
But the attacks worked. Santorum become the darling of conservatives reluctant to accept Romney, and the rest is history. Now Gingrich will have to revert to lining up paid speaking engagements to try and get that huge campaign debt paid off. Or ask Romney for help in exchange for an endorsement.
One of the best lines about Gingrich comes from Republican strategist Ed Rogers, who was quoted in the Washington Post’s Post Partisan column. Rogers gave credit to Gingrich as a “fountain of ideas” who will have a role to play in the campaign ahead. Rogers then added that “a lot of people will listen (to Gingrich) as long as they are not asked to vote for him.”