A ‘sure thing’ no more for GOP

No apologies necessary for our continuing fascination with the new profile one has come to expect every other week in this drawn-out extreme fighting (don’t they know this “sport” is long defunct?) exhibition that has become the Republicans’ road to a presidential nominee. Political rivals from the same party beating up on each other in pursuit of some special prize is nothing new, but this has gotten to be really awkward. There’s a famous photo-op routine that is a nomination-night staple after one of these bruising battles – that of the erstwhile combatants hugging in a show of unity. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in a warm embrace after the Republican challenger for 2012 has been duly anointed should make for good theater.

The peculiar thing about this slugfest of a nominating process is how un-Republican it has been. Not that Republicans aren’t used to some sparring bouts along the way, but they tend not to get down and dirty the way this one has. Pitched battles tend to be more on the Democratic side. The ’08 Obama-Clinton tussle, if not exactly of pitched battle proportions all the way, had its moments. The appearance of absolute bedlam in the Democratic ranks when they famously convened in Chicago in 1968 probably had a lot to do with Richard Nixon’s nosing out Hubert Humphrey in the general election. This time around, though, it’s Republicans in the pit, going at it hammer and tong.

Gingrich was supposed to be dead in the water a few months back, his staff having abandoned ship and just about everything else happening that would suggest a campaign on life support. Supposedly because of his performances in the litany of GOP debates, Gingrich’s campaign got reinvigorated to the extent of being targeted for a grand old beat-down from the others for the first test in Iowa. The strategy worked; Gingrich finished down the field. But what a mess of weird stuff since the candidates had that first taste of how an electorate would behave!

The dogfight has been confounding pundits every which way. The only result that had been a fairly easy call to make was that Romney would win in New Hampshire, a result which, had it been any different, Romney could have surely considered himself cued to pack it in, New Hampshire being pretty much home turf for him. Everything else about what has gone down so far should make the so-called experts gun-shy about telegraphing how the race will develop and likely finish (of course we know that some of them, never mind by how much they’ve been off the mark, aren’t about to let up with the “informed” drivel).

Romney came out of Iowa with what was reported to be an eight-vote win over Rick Santorum. Immediately, his win in New Hampshire catapulted him into “can’t be stopped” territory, said those with knowledge of these things. Although there remained the knock on him as a holder of false conservative papers, because of the stack of competitors more appealing to the GOP’s conservative bloc, the divvying up of support among them would just cut Romney a clear path. It all sounded logical enough…until stuff started hitting the fan. Romney would find out he didn’t defeat Santorum in Iowa, after all. And he would suddenly find himself on the defensive trying to withstand some blistering attacks from Gingrich and others about how he amassed his millions, what taxes he has paid, etc. And he wasn’t exactly smooth in responding to the blitz when it came. Upshot of all of which was that the lead he held in polls in South Carolina, next stop on the road show, began dissipating and, sure enough, come primary day he received a fairly solid whipping from Gingrich. Suddenly, the aura of invincibility surrounding Romney has given way to a “What have we here?” state of puzzlement settling over these White House wannabes.

Romney’s superiority in funding and organization may be enough to stanch this early hemorrhaging. But the Florida primary is coming right up, and if the “bogus conservative” label plays havoc with him there, the road ahead could get to be more troubled than his campaign coffers could repair. Gingrich, meanwhile, running on empty a good part of the way, found himself the beneficiary of a $10 million boost to his campaign from a single donor, reportedly because he is perceived by the donor as outstandingly pro-Israel. Conversely, the view from that quarter (and others, assuredly) is that President Obama has an anti-Israel charge to answer. What else is new?

Having been brought back to earth, after flirting with an “above the fray” thing while lesser lights battled for secondary space, Romney has now gone into full attack mode and is evidently prepared to throw everything he can at Gingrich. One of which is what has long been the conventional wisdom on the GOP side – that Romney is the only contender with a shot at beating Obama. That little nugget is part of the Romney camp’s advertising arsenal in the Florida stakes.

Of course there’ll be time yet for Romney, Gingrich or whoever to take aim on the president about everything under the sun. In the process of getting there, though, Romney and Gingrich would have involuntarily contributed quite a lot to the Obama arsenal. Bare-knuckled politics is not without a price.