I was called into the BBC again tonight, for the second time this weekend, to discuss the outcome from the South Carolina Primary. I was delighted to be working with the wonderful Martine Croxall again, and if my performance is any good, I’m going to give her the credit, because she is a blast to work with.
I appeared on the BBC this lunchtime discussing the state of the Republican Primaries in the United States ahead of the South Carolina Primary today. Thanks to my colleagues at The Commentator I can provide you with this link to the interview with Sophie Long. Enjoy!
South Carolina saw the first shots fired in the American Civil War and whilst the latest Republican Presidential Debate wasn’t held at the famed Fort Sumter, it may as well have been for the clear divisions that it threw up within the Republican Party between a moderate and a team of rebels all seeking to lay claim to the proud conservative heritage of Ronald Reagan.
The hours heading into the debate were particularly tumultuous. A mere twelve hours beforehand former governor Mitt Romney had been cruising; the declared victor in Iowa and New Hampshire (an historical first for a non-incumbent presidential Republican candidate) and was expected to win Saturday’s South Carolina Primary and in the process finally see off any serious competition for the nomination. Sure, the primaries and caucuses would drag on until June, but realistically, a Romney victory this weekend would effectively seal the deal.
And then a series of interesting and unrelated incidents occurred…
For weeks many of us have been stating the blindingly obvious; namely that Romney has failed to gain the support of up to 70% of voters in the last two elections and that the polling in South Carolina had him similarly placed. However, with a field of other candidates remaining in the race, the Romney opposition was divided. This field thinned slightly earlier in the week with Ambassador John Huntsman’s decision to get out and back Romney. However, on Thursday afternoon, Texan governor Rick Perry followed suit, choosing instead to endorse Newt Gingrich. Suddenly, Gingrich surged.
At the same time, word leaked of a pre-recorded interview that Newt Gingrich’s second wife had conducted for ABC News in which she referred to the Speaker’s request for an open marriage that would allow him to see his then mistress and now latest wife.
Compounding this was the breaking news from Iowa, where it seems that eighteenth century voting methods no longer suffice (strangely enough). Having declared Mitt Romney the winner by a paltry 8 votes in the immediate aftermath of the caucuses, the final (?) tally was revealed to put Rick Santorum ahead by some 34 votes, raising the memory of Florida 2000.
The upshot of all this? Romney, the former man to beat, was now stripped of his win in Iowa and sinking in the polls to a resurgent Newt Gingrich, whose own reputation was being torn to shreds by a vengeful wife, whilst his latest spouse stood by his side. As the debate approached, its potential importance mounted and one wondered what would happen next?
The debates got off to an explosive start. The big question was always going to be as to when the issue of marital fidelity would be raised, and the answer was, immediately. Straight out of he box moderator John King of CNN asked Gingrich if he would like to address the allegations. “No, but I will” he responded and took the opportunity to attack John King and CNN for having the nerve to ask him such a question. It really was all about Newt for much of the debate from then on.
Interestingly, the expected fireworks between Newt and Romney failed to develop, instead Rick Santorum, after a VERY shaky start, attempted to take the opportunity to seal the deal with conservative voters and attacked Gingrich whenever possible, going after his record as Speaker in particular, suggesting that ‘grandiosity has never been a problem’ for Gingrich. At times he spoke through clenched teeth and appeared desperate to remember his script and adhere to his message. Fundamentally, Santorum did himself no favours when he acknowledged that being in he last four was an achievement, a statement that spoke to the heart of his dilemma: He’s not a winner. He also had a complete inability to look his opponents in the eye when attacking them, making him look weak, feeble and cowardly. He must surely be the next candidate to drop out and leave the floor for a straight square-off between Romney and Gingrich.
The bias against Ron Paul in terms of coverage continued unabated, which the candidate noted at one point. When he could get a word in edgeways Paul remained as committed as ever to delivering his thoughts and perspectives in his own unique manner, something he admitted could do with some fine-tuning.
With all of the focus, it really was Gingrich’s night and he didn’t disappoint. More a showman than a politician, one expected to start seeing rabbits come from up his sleeves as he pulled one set of figures and historical facts out after another, referencing his books and time in office and work with the mighty Ronald Reagan. It was clear that Gingrich had a full mastery of the issues and a calm presentation style that would be a benefit in a general election. His weakness of course, is self-embellishment, something Romney highlighted in reference to his virtual exclusion from the Reagan diaries. He also failed to convince in terms of immigration when he suggested establishing citizen’s panels to screen illegal immigrants to decide who could stay and who should be expelled.
The big loser was Mitt Romney who appeared smug and glib and time and again was forced to pivot to prepared answers in response to tough questions. On more than one occasion he appeared to indicate his fatigue, not physically, but with the annoying matter of having to go through the motions of these tiresome debates with candidates he believes he should defeat without trying. The debate was balanced and smart at times, and certainly did not descend into the sort of name-calling and adherence to talking points that occur so often in US politics. It was well moderated and well conducted, reflecting well on all concerned. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was no single knock out punch landed. If anything, there appeared to be more animosity between Gingrich and King than between the candidates, following the heated opening exchange. It is almost certainly the opening exchange for which the debate will be remembered, which is a shame as the Speaker’s private life really had very little impact beyond this.
What was missing? Only little things like foreign policy, Iran, national security, financial policy…
Did the debate tell us anything? It confirmed Ron Paul’s tenacity and determination to adhere to his core beliefs and Libertarian sentiments; Santorum had a faltering start, took the fight to Gingrich but appeared to falter under the gaze of Mitt Romney; Gingrich appeared large, but smart and a master of the issues and gave a very focused closing statement; Romney came across as smug and lacking in the depth required for the job he is once again seeking and singularly failed to ask for the voters to turn out and support him on Saturday. You know what they say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get…. Saturday will be fascinating.
I am delighted to report that The Commentator has just published my latest piece of work that dissects Rick Perry’s decision to withdraw from the Republican race ahead of the South Carolina Primary.
So in the aftermath of the New Hampshire Primary, a candidate has finally realised that they are NOT going to be President of the United States and appears set to throw in the towel. Who is this wise sage you may ask? Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Ron Paul? (The list could go on and on and on…)
No, the answer is John Huntsman, someone who has struggled to gain traction, votes, or even name recognition in some regions and who is all set to withdraw and endorse his fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney.
Huntsman had been championed in some quarters as a serious candidate this year, but things went wrong from the start. His great unveiling ceremony, designed to replicate a similar address by Ronald Reagan so many decades ago, was ruined by unsightly boats in the background that blocked the view of the Statue of Liberty. Republicans remained suspicious of a candidate who until recently had worked for the enemy, sorry, the President of the United States, as ambassador to China (and who could therefore also speak a foreign language, admittedly, not French, something else that was a clear negative). Finally, he was a Mormon, which Mitt Romney has discovered, is hardly something to engender ‘raptures’ amongst the Christian Evangelicals that Republicans will need to woo in vast numbers if they are to reclaim the White House this year.
Huntsman had elected not to campaign in the Iowa Caucuses, remarking that ‘they pick corm in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Alas his extensive efforts to woo the voters of the Granite state came to nothing, as he polled just 16.9% and came in third behind Romney and Paul. Seriously, whoever advised his campaign that betting huge in Romney’s neighbouring state was the way to win the nomination should never work in politics again. Indeed, this campaign season has been beset by terrible political decisions; Sarah Palin’s dithering; Romney’s shoe shine antics and various utterances regarding firing people; Rick Perry’s ENTIRE campaign and Huntsman’s all or nothing focus on New Hampshire. Considering that Perry has made a similar effort to focus on South Carolina (where he is currently polling just 6%), his continued viability must surely come into question.
Huntsman’s expected departure will doubtless be the first of several such decisions, as candidates look at the vast costs involved in running primary campaigns in both South Carolina and Florida, the latter of which in particular requires huge advertising budgets just to stay in the game. As the inevitable begins to set in, expect to see similar announcements between now and the end of the month. Such a move will help to solidify the conservative opposition to Romney, as this vote will no longer be splintered between the various candidates who are NOT Mitt Romney. This development has, however, come a little late in the game to be truly effective although it may allow Newt Gingrich to remain in the race, if he is able to muster their support.
Ron Paul is likely to be unaffected by this decision since his core supporters appear utterly unimpressed by the Republican mainstream candidates and would, in all honesty, be advised to form a third party Libertarian movement. They won’t for many reasons. Not least of which is that to do so would simply split the vote on the right and hand the election to the Democrats. Their best bet is to wage a Pat Buchanan-esque rearguard action and to ensure a prime time speaking slot at the convention and a say in defining the platform for the fall. Of course, in 1992 Pat Buchanan ensured that his voice was heard loud and clear and it was his remarks, rather than the candidate’s (a chap named Bush) that resonated in the ears and minds of American voters that fall…. as they queued to elect Bill Clinton. Such is life!