GOP Presidential Contenders–Current Review

Now that the last of the pre-caucus debates are over, here is where I think everyone stands:

Rick Santorum

Can someone please kindly tell Mr. Santorum that no one cares? I don’t mean to be rude, but Santorum at this point is doing infinitely more harm than good. His consistent attacks on the frontrunners is weakening the entire pool of candidates. At this point, with zero chance of winning, it is time to say thank you and close the doors.

Expected result: I think Santorum loses and loses big in Iowa and drops out. If he does not, the RNC needs to intervene.

Jon Huntsman

Like Santorum, it’s time for Huntsman to wrap up. About the only thing he has to gain at this point is positioning for a run in 2016. For that reason alone, I believe Huntsman will continue in the fight a while longer.

Huntsman’s biggest problem is that he isn’t speaking to the caucus voter. He’s speaking in more general-election-centrist terms, and it isn’t resonating. It isn’t capturing any votes. Should he somehow pull out the nomination, I think he’d do well enough, but he won’t.

Expected result: I think Huntsman lasts through New Hampshire. He has put his biggest hopes there, but he’ll need a more-than-superior showing to justify continuing farther than that.

He won’t get it.

Michelle Bachmann

Have we arrived here already? I like Bachmann. I think she’d make an okay nomination for VP (not the best, but an okay nomination). But that’s as far as I’d take it.

Bachmann has incredible strengths, most notably her passion, her poise, and her debating skills. She also has some incredible weaknesses, the biggest being that there is just a flavor of Palin in her, and that doesn’t help legitimize her in the face of a national electorate.

In last night’s debate, Bachmann scored some startlingly easy shots on Gingrich. Shots that I believe have punched some holes in Gingrich’s armor. Big holes. She painted a very real and believable picture of Gingrich as a Washington insider and a lobbyist supporting the much maligned Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae conglomerate. If Bachmann didn’t cost Gingrich a few percentage points, I’ll be surprised.

I’ll talk more about this later, but Bachmann also had the moment of the night last night when she pointed out Ron Paul’s ideas regarding Iran as the single most dangerous idea. She skillfully drew Ron Paul into a corner and, frankly, let him hang himself.

Expected results: I think Bachmann survives Iowa in fourth place. There is a possibility that she jumps to third given her performance last night, but there’s a lot of ground to make up.

But here’s the thing that is most intriguing to me…. Santorum is dead in the water, and he will drop. Who do you think he’ll endorse? If you answered Bachmann, you’re right. She’s the only one who fits his mold even remotely, and that combined support would push Bachmann close to a solid top three runner. Watch out. She’s a dark horse.

Rick Perry

Rick Perry had a surprisingly strong showing last night. I kept waiting for the flub, but Perry was calm, funny, and dead on in his delivery. If he had started out this way, we would not be having caucuses at this point because he’d be the runaway front runner.

Perry’s greatest weakness at this point is lack of credibility. He dug himself an incredibly deep hole with his early debate performances, and he’s only now starting to back fill. He won’t get those issues resolved soon enough to place respectably in the primaries, though.

Expected result: I think Perry comes in fifth in Iowa just behind Bachmann. That finish will remove much of his remaining support. I do think he holds on at least through New Hampshire, but he will withdraw soon after.

Perry holds an unusual wild card, much like Bachmann and Santorum, in that his endorsement will probably be one of the more valuable endorsements out there. I have trouble seeing Perry willingly endorsing any of the top three right now, but when push comes to shove–and it will–I think he’ll throw his support to Romney despite their conflicts. I just don’t see him supporting Paul nor do I see him throwing in with Gingrich, although that would be a close second to Romney.

Ron Paul

A few weeks ago, SNL did a sketch on the GOP debate. At one moment, they cornered Paul in a hypothetical about whether he’d intervene to save puppies in a burning house. Paul’s hilarious response was, “THOSE PUPPIES SHOULD BURN!!!!” At the end, the moderator looked at Paul and said, “Well, you stuck with your guns. Your weird, old guns.”

Nothing could describe Paul’s meltdown last night more accurately.

Paul was having what might have been his strongest debate yet right until the moderators questioned him about Iran. Given that question, Paul did indeed stick by his weird, old guns…

… and Bachmann killed him for it.

I’ve always admired Paul for his consistency, for his constant reliability on issues. However, I think he is wrong on Iran and his foreign policy in general, and it will cost him the election.

Ron Paul has been pulling steadily in the high teens, good enough for third place. He had the chance to overtake Romney and place even higher, but the simple truth is that most GOP voters are already leery of Paul for many reasons, and last night validated everyone’s concern and fear. To be frank, he looked utterly crazy defending his position on Iran last night. His speech was fast, his gyrations animated, his expressions frothy…. Insane.

Expected result: Whew… here’s the hard one. If the voter turn out is low in Iowa, Paul has a very real shot at stealing the state because his supporters are utterly rabid and they will be there. If he steals Iowa, watch out. He’ll be hard to take down because his base will only increase in passion.

On the other hand, Paul is not going to attract mainstream voters no matter who runs opposite him. He’s just that far out on some of his ideas (and I say this as someone who has a strong admiration for Paul and many of his ideas).

I honestly believe he’ll pull a third place finish in Iowa, which justifies continuing on. I do not see Paul ever pulling his campaign until he has exhausted all avenues. At that point, like he always does, he’ll decline giving an endorsement, leaving his followers to seek out a candidate on their own. When they do, they’ll likely shoot for the most fiscally conservative candidate left in the race.

Mitt Romney

Romney is still the most polished of the candidates. He has the largest war chest as well, and he simply never messes up. People jumped all over his $10,000 bet “mistake” as though it were major. It’s not. And it really is all they have to go on.

Romney’s primary problems right now have more to do with his past than anything else. There is an inherent distrust in someone from a north-east liberal state. People are willing to jump on his record without considering the context and his circumstances. This will harm him through the primaries simply because the electorate is generally unwilling to research and understand. However, if he gets the nomination, Romney will be very difficult for the Obama team to defeat because he has the ability to speak directly to that centrist view AND the ability to pull the Republican vote. Simply put: Republicans may not be totally sold on Romney, but they are completely sold against Obama. Put those two head to head, and Romney will take virtually every Republican vote.

Expected result: Romney will most likely take a strong second in Iowa. Paul’s meltdown virtually assured that last night as Paul was his closest challenger. Depending on voter turnout, there is also a strong chance that Romney pulls out the win.

Remember, Iowa hasn’t been a focus of Romney’s until recently. Very recently. And even then, he is still in second place with a strong shot at the top spot.

Romney’s plan all along has been New Hampshire and the following states. He may lose Iowa, but that won’t matter if he then pulls out a string of wins over the ensuing weeks.

Last thought… If Romney wins Iowa, it’s over. Iowa is the only chance the other candidates have of making him mortal. If they miss it, it’s done.

Newt Gingrich

Our current front runner has been almost unassailable it seems. However, like all the other challengers to Mitt, his ship is starting to sink a bit. His poll numbers have dipped from the realm of immortal to mortal recently, and his current lead over Romney isn’t all that great anymore.

But all that pales in comparison to the massive hole Bachmann put through Gingrich last night. She had him against the ropes for a good portion of the round, and his responses were weak, hollow, and pitiful. In the end, he came out looking like the Washington insider everyone hates, and it was hard to see him any differently.

Herman Cain, Perry, and Bachmann each fell apart in spectacular fashion after assuming front runner status. Gingrich won’t do that, but we did see the first major leak in his campaign last night, and I’ll be surprised if that leak doesn’t turn into a flood. The simple truth is that we don’t trust Gingrich. We know who he was 15 years ago, and we didn’t like him then either. He claims to have new stripes, but it’s hard to believe that.

Expected result: Yes, he’s facing his first serious hit against him, but he’s strong enough to take a hit like that and not drop off the race. He’s still in it. Now if he’s hit with a second shot of that nature, I would expect to see his campaign to stumble below Romney.

I expect him to win Iowa. It’s his to lose. And oddly enough, if he wins, it’s only expected. In his case, he cannot win this situation. Win Iowa, and it’s only expected. But if he loses….

The real test for Gingrich comes after Iowa. If he can pull additional early victories, he’ll likely take the nomination and cause Romney to pull out.

Final Analysis

So given all of that, what do I think will happen overall? This race is a three-person race with Bachmann playing the role of spoiler. In the end, it’ll come down to Romney and Gingrich in a long, drawn out battle for the nomination.

If Gingrich wants to win, he’ll continue playing the elder statesman card while avoiding the attacks and negativity. There are many people resonating to the positive campaign he is trying to run. Do I think it’ll win long-term? No, I don’t. But the longer he can wear Romney down, the more likely it is that Romney will be fatigued and weakened.

If Romney wants to win, he’ll start pointing out one simple truth: Of all the candidates out there, he is the only one who has consistently polled high enough in a direct race against Obama and won. The only candidate. Gingrich sits 10+ points below Obama. The others? Not even close. Romney has always been within the margin of error OR above Obama.

The GOP, while not sold on Romney, is sold on the idea of beating Obama. Romney has that ace sitting in his pocket, and he has yet to play it. Eventually, I expect to see him basically sit down and say (in much gentler words), “Look, you may not like me, but let me make this clear…. You can pick the guy you like more and get stuck with Obama for four more years OR you can pick me and at least get most of what you want. Make your call.”

Given that choice, it’s not a choice at all for more Republicans.

The race is still Romney’s to lose. He still is running the front-runner campaign. Whether he actually pulls it off in the face of Gingrich’s rise in the polls? I don’t know.

But the race is MUCH more interesting lately than it was in September/October.

This will be last post on this topic until after Iowa and maybe New Hampshire. Until then….

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One Response to GOP Presidential Contenders–Current Review

  1. Sarah L. says:

    I’m a bit torn. Mitt doesn’t appeal to Republicans in a lot of ways, but I think he can get the votes of people who are fed up with Obama. I think that’s how I will have to vote – based on who can beat Obama.

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