by Bianca Ktenas
As the Republican Nation Convention looms, the ever-dwindling number of candidates step up the rhetoric and are getting meaner and less gentlemanly. The convention will be held In Tampa, Florida at the end of August, beginning on the 27th. The hotly-contested state of Florida will be an unbelievable venue. Remember Bush v Gore in 2000?
The race began in Iowa months ago with the seven most popular candidates meeting voters and debating the issues: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and John Huntsman. Following the January 3rd caucuses, in which Romney and Santorum virtually tied and Paul coming in a close third, Bachman dropped out of the race post-Iowa. Later it was announced that Santorum eked out a smaller than small Iowa victory.
New Hampshire was the next stop for the GOP hopefuls when on January 10th the voters decided they preferred Romney by a large margin. Ron Paul came in with a decent second showing and Huntsman, Gingrich and Santorum clustered a distant third. Perry did abysmally and soon after dropped out of the race.
With two primaries and two winners, all eyes were on South Carolina, which has been the predictor of the Republican nominee since 1980. The four remaining principals: Romney, Santorum, Paul and Gingrich were set to debate just before the election on January 21st. The debate was seen as key for winning over voters as the majority of South Carolinians were undecided. The National Journal reported that “Nearly two months before the state’s Jan. 21 primary, 68 percent of South Carolina Republicans were undecided in the latest Clemson University Palmetto Poll. Of those who did pick a candidate, 68 percent said they were likely to change their mind.” South Carolina by being third in the nation on the primary calendar generally had picked the winner of its election by voting for either the winner of the Iowa caucuses and the (different) winner of the New Hampshire vote.
The January 19th debate held in Charleston, SC two days before the primary, was immensely important given that the overwhelming majority of voters had not made up their mind and those who had decided most indicated that they could be easily swayed. Two events occurred just before the debate which could affect the outcome: Santorum was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses over Romney by the slimmest of margins in a re-count, and Rick Perry decided to drop-out of the race, reducing the number of podiums on the stage to four. Two events occurred during the debate to dash one candidate’s hopes and to revive another’s mediocre campaign. Just before the debate, ABC News announced that it had an exclusive interview with Marianne Gingrich, Newt’s ex-wife, who alleged that New Gingrich’s “campaign positions on the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family values do not square with what she saw during their 18 years of marriage.” Given this recent news development, moderator John King’s first question of the night was to Gingrich, asking if he would like to discuss the recent interview by his ex-wife. [Click here for a full transcript of the debate] Surprisingly Speaker Gingrich replied, “No, but I will.” in a tone indicating he was less than happy to be asked the question and that it was his decision to discuss it or not. Gingrich immediately went on the attack, sidestepping the interview and its implications for his ethics entirely and instead launched a personal attack on respected CNN reporter John King, “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” To great applause, Gingrich wound up his outrage with, “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
Speaker Gingrich masterfully deflected any damage the interview with his second wife might have caused by bringing up the old Republican argument that the mainstream media is too liberal and will not give Republicans a fair chance. In fact, the main contention of the interview was barely mentioned before all media was branded as “protecting Barak Obama”. Never mind that John King would have been terribly remiss if he had not brought up the biggest story of the day. At any rate, Gingrich was able to gain the admiration of not only the audience who broke into raucous clapping, but the voters at home by attacking the liberal media and convincingly acting as victim of a personal attack. His great performances in past debates was nothing compared to that of Charleston. Gingrich did look commanding, experienced, passionate and knowledgeable as he attacked not only President Obama but really for the first time his fellow Republicans. Up until that time, it was almost as if the candidates were members of the same club (which they pretty much are) and were attacking an outsider (the incumbent Democratic president). Now as their numbers are being whittled down, they are realizing that they need to step up their game and get rid of the opposition and for Gingrich, that opposition is Romney.
Romney had a chance to shine in the debate and instead looked awkward and floundering. Despite Santorum’s victory in Iowa and Paul’s popularity with young libertarian voters, the main contenders of the evening were clearly Romney and Gingrich. Romney’s moment of truth came when an audience member asked the participants when they planned to release their tax returns. Gingrich said he released them “an hour ago”, Paul said never because he would “probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their income.” And he felt the congressional statements covered any income and investment questions. Santorum gave a strange answer “I do my own taxes and they’re on my computer and I’m not home.” Romney looked a little stricken as if he didn’t know this question was coming. He said he would release them for 2011 when they were done in April, four months from now and before Super Tuesday on March 6 when ten states determine who they will support. He accused the President of “insisting” that he show his tax returns and said Democrats would “attack people because they’ve been successful”. Later the moderator brought up the fast that Romney’s father released 12 years of tax returns to be completely open, when asked if he would do the same, Romney looked uncomfortable and then attempting to be coy said, “Maybe.” He did not look presidential. He looked like he had something major to hide. It turned out that it was only that he paid an effective tax rate of 14%, far less than many Americans with much lower incomes.
The Charleston debate ended with Gingrich looking like the chosen one and Romney looking as if he had committed a major gaffe. The election results support this. Gingrich walked away with 40% of the vote while Romney received only 28%. For the first time in years the winner of the South Carolina primary was neither the winner of the Iowa caucuses nor the winner of the New Hampshire primary, but a third candidate. It’s a whole new ball game.