Saturday, December 3, 2011

Romney Needs Some Offense, Cain Exits Stage Left, A Republican President and Democratic Congress?

Defense Doesn't Work When You Are Behind
Playing it safe in a Presidential primary is a great strategy when you are sitting on a big lead and simply waiting out the clock until the actual voting begins.  Mitt Romney has been doing it basically since the start of the primaries.  Sure, he took on Rick Perry during Perry's momentary surge on immigration.  He definitely fired away at Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan when it briefly looked like Cain might be a contender.  But he never really got down and dirty, stretching Reagan's 11th Commandment to Republicans (to not attack other members of your party), because, well, up until now he didn't have to.

From the very early contenders, one-by-one, anyone approaching being able to challenge Romney has done a good job of disqualifying himself or herself.  Trump didn't run.  Bachmann flubbed very basic facts.  Perry talked and acted downright stupidly.  Herman Cain...well, more on that later, but let's just say he made a few errors.  But the wily old former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich?  He's made virtually no errors so far.

Sure, he consulted for Fannie Mae.  Yes, he's been twice divorced, at least once under very ugly circumstances.  But he's been teflon so far.  Conservatives like Romney because he is one of them, his views on immigration notwithstanding.  Party elites are starting to take him seriously, because he's played the game in Washington before and presumably knows how to run a campaign.  And Newt stayed above the fray in all the debates, refusing to say a negative thing about the other contenders, largely because they allowed him to get away with that and never challenged him directly.  The debates, which have been probably more critical this year than in any prior election cycle, are his home field.

Romney is still the betting favorite.  Intrade odds peg Romney's chances at the nomination at 49%, Newt's at 35% (Huntsman and Paul are at 6%, Perry at just under 3%.)  This is largely because Romney has been a steady-Eddie, always near the top of the polls, while other candidates rise and fall.  And he's been my favorite for the nomination from the get-go.

Not anymore.  For the first time, I have serious doubts about Romney's ability to win the nomination.  Before you think I'm one of those commentators that jump their predictions based on the latest polls, go back and read my writing when Bachmann, Perry and Cain had their surges.  In all 3 cases, I stated that I strongly believed that they would fade quickly and that Romney would be back on top.  But Newt is different.

First of all, we've had two debates since he surged to the lead in the national polls and, rather than start to fade, as the other short-lived leaders of the race did, Newt is actually strengthening.

Secondly,  Newt is strong in all the key early states except New Hampshire (Romney still comfortable owns that one) and could very well sweep Iowa, South Carolina and Florida by decisive margins, which would make overcoming his momentum extremely difficult.  At this writing, his poll averages in the 4 early states are +14% in Iowa, -18% in New Hampshire, +23% in South Carolina and +24% in Florida.

Third, time isn't on Romney's side this time.  We are 31 days from the Iowa Caucuses.

Romney has to do SOMETHING to go on offense and change the trajectory of the race.  And right now, he's doing all the wrong things.  He turned down a chance to debate Gingrich one-on-one this month, allowing Huntsman to steal the thunder of an event that will now undoubtedly erode Romney's support, regardless of the outcome (if Gingrich performs well, he will solidify his support, if Huntsman outperforms him, he will steal moderate votes from Romney.)  He was an absolute train wreck this past week in a one-on-one interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, one of the few he has given.

There is a full-field debate tonight and Romney really needs to push hard on offense to change the trajectory of the race.  If Iowa were today, Romney would be on a path to lose.

Herman Cain, We Hardly Knew You
Comedy writers everywhere shed a tear today when it was learned that Cain would likely announce today in Atlanta that he was dropping out of the Presidential race.

It will soon be forgotten that for a brief period, Cain actually led in the national polls for the nomination.

The guy who gave us 9-9-9, comically uninformed answers to questions about foreign policy and a sordid set of allegations around his dealings with women will likely soon be gone from the race, a month before the voting even started.

As I said a few weeks ago, is there any doubt left that Tim Pawlenty is kicking himself for dropping out of this race?

Throw Out All Them Bums
President Obama's approval has dropped into the low 40s and we appear to be set up for a very competitive race for President only because of an exceptionally weak GOP field.  He has some hope in the form of a slightly improving economy and the likelihood that he will face either a polarizing figure (Newt Gingrich) or a wish-washy flip-flopper (Mitt Romney) in the general.  And he will have lots of money.  He's still a very slight betting favorite to win re-election, but at this point the outcome of the Presidential race is anyone's guess.

The story that isn't making any headlines, but could loom large in the 2012 races is the anti-incumbent and therefore largely pro-Democratic sentiment with regards to House races.  Generic polling favors Democrats (by a point or two) for the first time since 2008.  The GOP has tough turf to defend, holding virtually all the swing districts.  I'm not ready to say that the Democrats have a good chance to take back the House - redistricting puts them at a disadvantage, as does the large majority the GOP currently holds, but the possibility for significant gains by the Dems next November is looking like a real possibility for the first time. 

The Senate still looks bleak for the Democrats, with a very tough map to defend.  If they could eek out holding onto a narrow majority, it would be a huge victory for them, but that would basically mean winning almost all of the swing races.

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