Underestimating Mitt and Newt
For the first time in my life, and I have been following Republican primaries closely since before I was old enough to vote, I have found myself vacillating among candidates.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not from a lack of viable candidates, but from an excess. In November, I will gladly support whoever prevails. That includes Ron Paul, who, to the media's shock, already polls in a statistical dead heat with Barack Obama.
The man responsible for sharpening this year's field is Newt Gingrich. Were he not running, the other candidates would likely have contented themselves with wrapping pre-packaged platitudes around debate questions, much as candidates of both parties have done in every election post-Reagan. To get a sense of the unusual quality of this year's Republican field, watch a debate among the Democratic "dream" candidates of 2008 -- a bonfire of banalities if there ever was one.
Gingrich actually answers the questions. When asked by CNN's Jon King if he would like to address the allegations made by his ex-wife, Gingrich uttered four words that likely won him the South Carolina primary: "No. But I will." His sharpness exposed the relative dullness of early drop-outs like Pawlenty, Bachmann, Huntsman, and Perry. It also forced the survivors to hone their own speaking and debating skills. As Mitt Romney accurately argued in his Florida acceptance speech, "[a] competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us."
Gingrich's strategic error, one that has caused some voters to distrust him, is his repeated willingness to attack Romney from the left. Gingrich survived his misguided assault on Bain Capital, but in the Jacksonville CNN debate, Romney used Gingrich's own tactics to call him out on the question of illegal immigration.
Gingrich had been running Spanish-language ads in Florida describing Romney as "anti-immigrant." When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich whether Romney was, in fact, the most anti-immigrant candidate, Gingrich answered, "I think out of the four of us, yes."
Romney was ready. "The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive," he said. Romney clarified the difference between being anti-immigration and anti-illegal immigration, a clarification many of us have had to make. He added, "I think you should recognize that having differences in opinion does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets."
For many voters, in Florida and elsewhere, this was something of a turning point. Yes, Romney did indeed first surface as a "Massachusetts moderate." Yes, the Republican establishment, whatever that is, does support him. But for all of that, he has been running a more consistently conservative campaign than Gingrich, and he finally showed he had the onions to fight back. He will need them if he survives the primaries.
Romney is no RINO -- Republican In Name Only. He was not one even in his wobbly Massachusetts days. Sitting as I do on the border between Missouri and Kansas, I have become a skilled RINO-hunter. Here is the first rule of RINO-watching: they flourish only in Republican-dominated jurisdictions.
In Jackson County, Missouri, where I live, there are no RINOs. Here, as in Massachusetts, there is no reason to declare yourself a Republican unless you actually are one. Were I to run for office, I would have to run statewide to have any chance of winning anything. Democrats have all the local power.
Across the state line in Republican-dominated Johnson County, Kansas, RINOs are as common as cross-dressers on Castro Street. One of them, Mark Parkinson by name, chaired the Kansas Republican Party as late as 2004 before deciding that "I have not left the party, but the party has left me" or some such tripe that only the media could believe. He promptly ran for lieutenant governor as a Democrat in 2006. He won, and when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius headed off to D.C. in 2007, Parkinson ended his political career as the Democratic governor of Kansas.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman long ago mastered RINO-speak. I think he ran for president largely so he could give the exit speech he did, one that resulted in headlines like "Huntsman Quits 'Toxic' Race." No great fan of democracy in action, Huntsman claimed that the race had "degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people." That translates to "No one liked me."
It is not just Romney who has been accused of being a RINO. My Facebook wall is filled with accusations of RINO-hood against Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, and everyone to the left of the Facebook accuser, whose conservatism has been kept pure in the glimmer of his computer screen.
Both Gingrich and Romney gave excellent, thoroughly conservative, anti-Obama speeches in the wake of the Florida primary. Skeptics should watch them. To compare either candidate to Dole or to McCain is to prove that one's bias has gotten the best of his good sense and/or historical judgment.
Rush Limbaugh is right in that a strong conservative message will win the election. He is wrong in his implication that Gingrich is necessarily the better man to deliver it. As much as I admire Newt, one exit poll statistic out of Florida will shape the rest of the primaries, and the general election as well. It is this: Romney led Gingrich among female voters nearly two to one, 51 to 28. Minds can still be changed, but human nature is a little tougher.