The race for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination has begun to resemble a skeet shooting contest. Skeet is a competitive sport wherein clay disks are flung into the air at various angles and speeds. Contestants armed with rifles shoot them out of the air. GOP presidential candidates this primary season should be easily able to identify with the clay pigeons.
Since its earliest days the narrative of the Republican Presidential race has been that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the establishment front-runner. His support has not risen to more than about 30% in the polls, thus the competition has been among the other candidates to become the "not Mitt," or the clear alternative to Romney.
Over the past few months various candidates have assumed that role, only to find their candidacy shattered into a thousand pieces by the media and opponents armed with rhetorical rifles. Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann took her turn in the spotlight after winning the Ames straw poll in Iowa. She melted under the scrutiny. Texas Governor Rick Perry seemed ready for the role, until he actually started talking. Then it was former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who appeared to have staying power until allegations of sexual harassment took the luster off his candidacy.
The reigning "not Mitt" is former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich's campaign had been on life supports a couple of months ago after most of his staff resigned, but in recent days he has surged into the lead in both national polls and those in Iowa. As Newt soars through the sky, skeet shooters are taking aim.
But, not all clay pigeons get hit and some survive the game intact. Newt Gingrich may be the one that gets away. Why? Largely because unlike Bachmann, Perry and Cain; Gingrich has been on the political scene for decades. His baggage, especially the personal foibles, is already well known by the media and by the electorate. Details of his complex web of business activities are sure to emerge, but are unlikely to dent his soaring popularity.
Gingrich's policy positions are also well known. He has written and spoken more extensively than all of the other candidates and has been a font of policy ideas, many of them innovative and all well-reasoned. Since the beginning of the race, even when his candidacy was imploding, the former speaker has been generally acknowledged as the smartest man in the field with many viewing him as the candidate likely to make the best president, but not the most electable nominee.
The endless string of presidential debates, the source of mortal blows to Perry's candidacy; have propelled Gingrich to new prominence. While the other candidates engage in petty bickering, sniping at each other, Gingrich has played the role of elder statesman preferring instead to be critical of the Obama Administration's policies. Primary voters tend to be more engaged than the electorate at large and appear to be reacting positively to Gingrich's issue-based approach.
The challenge now for the Gingrich campaign is to become organized enough to take advantage of his surge in the polls. The campaign had lagged in fundraising, although that is picking up as he becomes more established in the top tier of candidates. More than $4 million has flowed into his coffers over the past six weeks. Even some of the staffers who abandoned him when Perry was the flavor of the day have returned.
Given that at any point in time over 70% of Republicans have preferred some else to Romney, it is possible early primary victories by Gingrich could have a wave effect with momentum propelling him forward even while he lacks in money and paid staff. Such a scenario would negate Romney's early advantages and render him an also ran.
For now, Romney remains the clear front-runner in terms of money and organization, but his tightly scripted low-risk campaign has yet to attract in any big numbers the supporters of other candidates who have surged and ebbed. The bulk of GOP primary voters still remains in search of a "not Mitt" and it is quite possible Newt Gingrich may be the last man standing.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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