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U.S. Hunt For Flag-Bearer Moves On

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By Ernest Corea
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - The event was heralded as an "alpha politician" occasion. The debate in Des Moines, Iowa on December 10, 2011 among six candidates each aspiring to be the Republican Party's flag bearer against President Barack Obama and the Democrats in November 2012, was supposed to be decisive. It was not.

Iowa’s Republican caucus, scheduled for January 3, 2012, leads to the selection of only around 1 percent of the 2421 delegates who will be selected nationwide. (There are no Democratic primaries/caucuses planned for 2012 because President Obama is uncontested within the Democratic Party.)

Despite the small number of delegates to be courted in Iowa, the caucus is considered a major political event because it is the first in the cycle each year a presidential election is held. It has held this position from 1972.

Iowans are proud of this tradition because of the prominence it gives the state, as well for the income it generates – said to be in the millions – from the various campaigns settling in and canvassing for support through many means in the state’s 99 counties. But, back to the debate.

No Lethal Blow

Going into the debate, three contestants – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Representative Ron Paul were well ahead of the rest in Iowa public opinion polling.

Gingrich – following a gush of support between October and December – led with 31 percent. Romney was next at 17.8 percent, followed by Ron Paul – 17.3 percent, Texas Governor Rick Perry – 10 percent, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann – 9.3 percent, and ex-Senator Rick Santorum – 5.5 percent. (Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman scored a polling figure of 2 percent, but he was excluded from the debate because he failed to reach the required cut-off point of 5 percent.)

Many expectations arose from the comfortable though not impregnable lead of 13.2 percentage points secured by Gingrich, Romney's drop to second place after months in first place, and Paul’s strong third place position.

The conventional wisdom, based on several years of past experience as well as on the buzz of gossip and the weight of analysis, was that one of the top three contestants would dominate the debate, leave the rest of the contestants far behind, and move comfortably into the Iowa caucus. There was even some speculation that one or more contestants might drop out of the race as a result.

As it happened, nobody delivered or received a lethal verbal blow. The search for a flag-bearer continues, with the decibel level rising, and with more negative advertising than before. The next and last pre-caucus debate will be in Sioux City, Iowa on December 15.

(An attempt by Donald Trump to stage an additional debate moderated by him has faltered. Only two contestants, Gingrich and Santorum, have accepted the invitation to participate in a Trump-moderated debate. Huntsman, in turning down Trump’s invitation, said that he would "not kiss Trump's ring or kiss any other part of his anatomy." Trump has since indicated that his event might be a conversation rather than a debate.)

Performance Assessed

The Des Moines debate was the first since Herman Cain prematurely ended his exuberant campaign.  Faced with allegations that he was a serial sexual harasser, and that he had engaged in an extra-marital affair for 13 years, Cain "suspended," actually ended, his campaign after consultations with his wife.

His withdrawal raised many questions. For instance: Was he guilty as stated or "framed", as he insisted? Were the timing and the substance of the allegations against him planned by a rival campaign, as he suggested? Was he the victim of a conspiracy by establishment figures who did not believe that the Republican Party was ready for an African-American as its presidential candidate?

The questions were not raised at the debate, and will probably not be raised at any public event, because the Cain candidature is swiftly receding from public memory. If nothing succeeds like success, nothing fails like failure.

The Des Moines debate was also the first major public Republican event following the Gingrich upswing. His peers came ready to jump all over him and Gingrich, by many accounts, an expert at jumping all over others, was evidently well prepared, too. He was pounded on a range of issues including marital infidelity, sleeping with the political enemy, pseudo-conservatism, double-talk, bombast, lack of dignity, and more.

Gingrich responded without his best-known characteristics as a debater: no scowl, no superior smirk, and very little verbal bombast. He gave direct answers, stood up to robust questioning, and gave back as good as he got. When Romney talked derisively of "professional politicians" Gingrich cracked back that Romney was not a professional politician only because he was defeated by Ted Kennedy in a contest to be a senator from Massachusetts.

Another memorable moment which has "gone viral" was Romney's response to Perry's insistence that Romney excised a self-incriminating reference in one of his books before it went into a second edition. Romney, who kept asserting that he did no such thing, finally turned to Perry and offered him a "bet of $10,000" on who was right.

The offer has been denounced from both right and left as showing up Romney as a member of the privileged class who neither understands nor appreciates the concerns of his less well-off fellow citizens.

Time magazine graded the debate performance of the contestants as follows: Gingrich – A-, Romney – B+, Paul -- B, Perry – B, Bachmann – B-, and Santorum – B-.

The more important test – that of public opinion – may be determined from the average of post-debate polling figures in Iowa. The numbers in brackets are pre-debate figures: Gingrich – 30.8 percent (31), Romney – 18.2 (17.8), Paul – 16 (17.3), Perry – 9.6 (10), Bachmann – 9.2 (9.3), Santorum – 5.4 (5.5).

Bad Ideas

Irrespective of their debate performance, neither of the main frontrunners has won the complete confidence of the Republican establishment. Party elders are concerned that Romney is an unreliable conservative and that Gingrich lacks the qualities of a potential president. Efforts were therefore made to persuade other contestants to jump in, but these failed.

Party elders are particularly concerned about the electability of their candidates because they are convinced that the presidential election of 2012 is theirs to lose, and a poor choice of candidate can mean a lost opportunity.

The views of the party establishment are reflected in comments from right-leaning media commentators.

George F. Will, whose elegant prose makes him the dean of the group, wrote in the Washington Post: "Romney's main objection to contemporary Washington seems to be that he is not administering it…. Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that makes modern Washington repulsive."

Popular columnist Kathleen Parker: "Gingrich does have big ideas; they’re mostly bad ones."

Ronald Reagan's speechwriter Peggy Noonan writing on Gingrich in the Wall Street Journal: "He's philosophically unanchored, an unstable element" ….. "There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He's a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought…. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, 'Watch this!'"

Here is a Gingrichism, uttered quite apart from the Iowa debate, that illustrates Noonan's point: "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time (my grandchildren) are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."

Members of the Republican establishment find such comments un-presidential. The Republican base, now steeps in tea, thrives on them. So have Gingrich's poll numbers.

Despite lingering concerns about the quality of their candidates, Republicans will coalesce behind whoever is selected and support him. Their main objective is to send President Barack Obama out of the White House. Their hunger for an electable candidate has to have increased with the most recent polling figures that show Obama to be vulnerable in 12 key states.

Interesting Case

On one issue, however, there is no space between the views of Republican aspirants and those of the party establishment: ceaseless and uncritical fealty to the Government of Israel. (The only exception is Ron Paul.)

The candidates' views, unchallenged by the political establishment or right-leaning commentators, were spelled out during a forum recently organized in Washington DC by the Republican Jewish Coalition, to which Paul was not invited. The remaining candidates gave a formidable display of pandering, with promises of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, planning to visit Israel, pledging strategic defensive aid to Israel, and doing all but applying for Israeli citizenship.

Separately, Gingrich went a step further when he told an interviewer that Palestinians were an "invented people" who were seeking an "invented state", and referring to Palestinians as terrorists. He was questioned on his statement at Des Moines and repeated it.

"If an Arab or Palestinian official said a racist comment that was one-millionth of what this U.S. candidate said, the world would have been in continuous uproar," commented Mohammed Sobeih, the Arab League official who handles Palestinian affairs. Gingrich's comments were "irresponsible and dangerous," he added.

At this moment, on this issue, the best that can be said for Gingrich assertion is to adapt a comment made by English academic F. R. Leavis in a different context: "Gingrich presents an interesting case – himself." [IDN-InDepthNews – December 14, 2011]

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:
http://www.indepthnews.info/index.php/search?searchword=ernest%20corea&ordering=newest&searchphrase=all

Picture: Newt Gingrich | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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