It’s Primary Season Folks! The 2012 GOP Primaries officially kick off next week in New Hampshire, but for all intents and purposes, it has already kicked off with the Iowa Caucuses. Michele Bachmann has already dropped out, Perry and Gingrich are mustering their remaining forces for a last stand in the South, and the others have started turning on each other. Here, now, we have a clearer picture than ever of who is really in the top tier and who is likely to be the nominee in this fractured party. With that in mind, let us look at how each of them stands right now.
Strengths: With Bachmann bowing out, and Perry and Gingrich down to their last days in the race, the neoconservative/religious right finally has a candidate that they can unite behind. His victory in Iowa has finally propelled him into the spotlight, and he can pose a major threat to Mitt Romney by uniting the Republican base against him. Santorum’s strengths are his appeal to the neoconservative foreign policy hawks, social conservatives, and blue collar workers. Whereas Romney has “corporate fat cat” written all over him (at least in the minds of American blue collar workers) and Paul is so gung-ho on free trade that he seems to be in support of shipping out American jobs, Santorum has won elections in union-heavy districts by actively supporting American manufacturing. If any candidate has the ability to take away Democratic votes for economic and job-creating reasons (in an election dominated by those concerns), it has to be Rick Santorum.
Weaknesses: Basically, one needs to only Google “Rick Santorum” to see his biggest problem. Opposition to his stance on gay-related issues is legion, as is opposition to his stance on abortion (such as the shameless criticism of Alan Colmes regarding Santorum’s handling of the death of his still born son). His hyper-interventionist foreign policy may also be detrimental to winning an election in a time when many Americans are weary of war, but at the same time, is also helpful to winning votes from the majority of Republicans who strongly oppose the “Blame America First” mentality of Cong. Paul. (Paul, of course, charges that Santorum is somehow racist for his views about Iran, engaging in the same smearing tactics that he and his supporters decry with regards to the questionable newspaper columns). His biggest weakness of all, however, is that he just seems like too much of a nice guy to win a national election against a shark like Obama.
Strengths: Romney really benefited from the Iowa Caucuses. He showed that he can win (however narrowly) in a socially conservative state in a contest he was supposed to lose. As a result of this, and his expected double-digit victory in New Hampshire, Romney is clearly the frontrunner at this point, and represents the Bob Dole-John McCain wing of the party. Romney represents the private sector better than any other candidate, and has shown that he might have enough appeal to Northeastern Liberals to pull some key votes away from the Obama campaign. At this point, it is inconceivable that Romney will not be on the ticket (unless Huntsman pulls off a New Hampshire surprise and goes on to win the nomination). Romney also comes across as more level-headed and realistic than either Santorum or Paul, a key aspect that could factor heavily in his favor and make independents and moderate liberals more willing to vote in his favor than Obama’s. Finally, Romney seems like a candidate that has the ability to get people to settle for him. He doesn’t have the fanatic support that Paul or Obama has, but has enough widespread appeal that conservatives, moderates, and liberals are willing to settle (as SNL said, “nothing says you are settling like Mitt Romney”). In such a weak GOP field, that is a winning quality. Romney seems primed to win New Hampshire, and could seal the nomination with victories in Florida and South Carolina.
Weaknesses: Two words; “flip” and “flop.” Santorum and Paul are consistent ideologues, but Romney has the same weakness that John Kerry had in ’04, he takes whatever positions will win the race. In a sense, he is the quintessential politician. His most glaring case of flip-flopping was with Romneycare, but also with his stances on abortion and gay rights. He also sometimes comes across as an “elitist,” like with his $10,000 bet with Rick Perry in the one debate. Additionally, although he has enough widespread appeal to make people settle for him, he does not bring a great deal of enthusiasm with his supporters. Indeed, support for Romney is always lukewarm. Should he win the nomination, many Republicans will campaign against Obama, but not necessarily in strong favor of Romney
Strengths: No candidate has such an energized base of supporters as Cong. Paul. No other candidate has a small (albeit growing) group of followers that would brave blizzards, volcanoes, tornadoes, and hurricanes (even all at the same time) as Dr. Paul. That said, his greatest strengths are his organization skills, appeal to the Far Left, leftover hippie generation doves, and his consistency. In the general election, he may be able to steal some votes from Obama from pacifists, gay rights activists, and marijuana rights activists, all of which have been uncontested bulwarks of the Democratic Party since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Although one many not agree with Dr. Paul on everything, one must admit that his stances never change because of prevailing political winds. Should Paul get the nomination, no candidate will have people working for him harder than they will work for Paul.
Weaknesses: His supporters are a major strength for him, but they are also a huge liability. Their support is so fanatical, that it reaches almost totalitarian levels, and his supporters have already started to go rogue and harm his campaign, as with the recent ad that some made against Jon Huntsman, calling him a “Manchurian Candidate” because of his service as Ambassador to China and his adoption of Chinese babies. Even worse, some of these are prone to treat any other candidate, or person who disagrees with them in the slightest, as representing absolute evil. Beyond his supporters, though, Paul has several other major obstacles to overcome. Chief among these obstacles is Paul, himself. He is a weak debater, prone to scowl throughout the debates and go off on semi-conspiratorial rants that always make him look bad. Paul’s campaign is not optimistic, but comes across as being bred from anger (much like Carl Paladino’s gubernatorial campaign in New York). Also, he will have more difficulty than either Romney or Santorum in securing up the main Republican base- the religious right neoconservatives. Paul represents the paleoconservative, libertarian wing of the Party, which is far less prominent than the other two wings. He holds seemingly contradictory stances on abortion, gay rights, and immigration, which may not sit well with a large portion of social conservatives (not to mention his pro-marijuana stance). Finally, he will need to be able to surmount the fact that any thinking person would realize that his plans to downsize the government are impossible. Cutting one major bureaucratic department would be a defining achievement of an administration, cutting 5 would require totalitarian powers. Using the response to Governor Walker’s mere stripping of collective bargaining rights from public sector employees as a litmus test, it is laughable to think that Paul could somehow gut the jobs of thousands of people, even if he reduces his own salary to 1/10 of what it would otherwise be. This is sad, but it is true. Paul would not have the power to accomplish what he promises, and it would be foolish to think otherwise.
Strengths: Huntsman is a true conservative on nearly every issue, but does not have the “crazy” label attached to him, like Santorum, Paul, and Perry all do. He has extensive foreign policy experience, especially with China, and has a more reasonable foreign policy than Paul or Santorum, who represent the extremes of both ends of the spectrum. Huntsman has an intellectual aura about him, something that will appeal to independents and many Democrats, and is willing to break with the GOP on issues like climate change (unfortunately) and civil unions for gay couples (something that could really help him win votes from Democrats). He has an impeccable character, mild manners, and is level-headed. An examination of his record shows that he is 100% Pro-Life, Pro-Second Amendment, and is completely laissez-faire with regards to the economy. In short, accurate representation of his record would help him sway the Republican base (much more than either Romney or Paul), yet would also have enough appeal to the moderates and left that he could beat Barack Obama.
Weaknesses: For some reason, his service as Ambassador to China has counted as a strike against him ever since declaring his campaign. Instead of it being a significant achievement (and representation of his Washingtonian willingness to transcend politics in favor of service to the nation), many conservatives have been led to believe that it somehow means that he is a political lackey of President Obama. His other weaknesses are more practical: he simply has a lack of finances, name recognition, and enthusiasm (although that will change if he stays in the race beyond New Hampshire and the Huntsman Daughters become more prominent). Like Santorum, Huntsman may not be enough of a fighter to defeat a shark like Obama, as he promised a civil campaign when he started, and he has maintained it throughout the nomination process. The only chinks in his ideological armor are simply his support for equal rights for gay couples (in the form of civil unions) and taking a more so-called “Pro-Science” stance regarding climate change and evolution. Should he win the nomination, his support would be warmer than support for Romney (from the base of the party), but those two stances may make some less willing to back him. The only way he would be able to fight this weakness would be by nominating either Rick Santorum, Allen West, Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, or some other Republican that is a social conservative in every sense as his Vice President.
Strengths: He still has some appeal to social, fiscal, and foreign policy conservatives, as well as wannabe intellectuals. He still has some money to spend from his moment in the spotlight, and he is angry. Gingrich is more or less a cornered and wounded animal, and has nothing to lose by going on the full scale offensive against Mitt Romney. No one is happier about this fact than Rick Santorum.
Weaknesses: Newt’s weaknesses are legion. He still has his checkered personal past to contend with, an inconsistent record on a variety of issues, and an unfavorable overall reputation. Newt’s spotlight moment as the anti-Romney is over, but he is staking it all on the southern states. I do not see him returning to the top tier of candidates, but he’ll stick around for a couple more weeks.
Strengths: Honestly, the only reason I can see for Perry to stick around is his appeal to southern voters. Should something happen with Santorum, some may look at Perry again out of desperation. His only strength is that he still has a considerable war chest to spend.
Weaknesses: Forgetfulness, weak debating skills, need I go on? Perry is done.
New Hampshire Predictions
Mitt Romney- New Hampshire is tailor-made for Romney, a Northeastern moderate with a successful record as a governor of a neighboring state. His New Hampshire victory, however, will only be complete if he destroys Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Anything less than a double-digit victory in New Hampshire would have to be viewed as a cause for concern in the Romney camp.
Jon Huntsman- Living in New Hampshire throughout the campaigning process has to pay extraordinary dividends for Governor Huntsman, or else he is done. He does not have to win New Hampshire, but anything less than third is a lethal blow to his campaign. I think he can post a strong second, much like Santorum in New Hampshire, and possibly gain some more national exposure. The ideal scenario for him would be to finish within 10% of Romney- a finish that could send shockwaves throughout the Republican Party. After all, he is a much better compromise candidate than Romney.
Ron Paul- He won’t win New Hampshire, but should finish in second or third. In his place, I would concentrate more on the South, where people are more uncertain about their votes. No matter how he finishes in New Hampshire, Paul will be around until the Convention.
Rick Santorum- He should finish ahead of the other social conservatives, but New Hampshire is not Iowa. Florida and South Carolina promise better results than the Granite State. If he can pass Paul, and maybe even Huntsman, then New Hampshire is a victory for him.
Newt Gingrich- Although he really isn’t contesting New Hampshire, Newt has more appeal to this state than Perry. He will finish in 5th, and hope for better luck in Dixie.
Rick Perry- Perry has also given up on New Hampshire, and it would be a surprise to see him finish in anything but dead last.
The contest is not over yet, but Mitt Romney has the inside track to be the nominee. Victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida will all but end the competition for the nomination. If Santorum is able to mop up the votes from Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann, he could pose a strong challenge, especially if he wins the southern contests. Unlike Cain and the others, Santorum has the advantage of rising at the time when other social conservatives drop out. He also has the advantage of running in a year when the Republican Party is more fractured than ever before. Ron Paul staying in the race only helps out Santorum by preventing Romney from getting a clear majority, but also provides Romney with a “sparring partner” of sorts to prepare him for debating Obama. Paul will continue to stay in the race, probably until the convention, and should not be ignored (especially since it will only cause his worker bees to buzz louder). Huntsman is the lone remaining dark horse, but time is no longer on his side in the Granite State.