Once again, a new anybody-but-Mitt-Romney candidate has surged in the Republican polls. This time, it is former Speaker Newt Gingrich. After surviving onslaughts from Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, you would think Mitt Romney might start seeing some daylight and begin to build the support he’ll need to capture the nomination. He is the candidate with the best match-up numbers against Obama, so you would expect the Republican base to begin to see the advantages of Romney as the nominee. Instead, it is becoming evident that while Romney’s support may be steady, his candidacy is not catching fire. He remains the unloved frontrunner.
As with the others before him, Gingrich will now enter the phase of close scrutiny. Can he survive and emerge as the permanent anybody-but-Romney candidate? Or will he fail, as the others did before him, to maintain his momentum?
The rise of Gingrich is surprising because his candidacy was written off as early as last spring. He is a polarizing figure, prone to controversial and often contradictory statements. He has been known to apply standards of conduct to others that he doesn’t follow himself. Just ask Bill Clinton. More recently, reports surfaced that Gingrich received over $1 million from Freddie Mac, a favorite target of his on the campaign trail. The Obama people would love to run against him, but it seems unlikely his bid for the nomination will survive a close inspection.
In addition to its inability to field a compelling roster of candidates, the GOP brain trust has chosen to conduct an overabundance of debates that have done little to define positions or make the candidates appear serious. In 2008, the Democrats had a group of attractive candidates that captured the attention of their base and the rest of the electorate on basis of their personas and their visions. This is not happening with today’s GOP field.
Perry has proven to be a inept debater, generally looks out of his depth, and has failed to define himself on a position that could make him a serious candidate come primary season. It may be too late for him already. Both Bachmann and Cain had promising early starts, but have been inconsequential of late because they do not appear ready for primetime on the issues. No one really believes either can win anyway. As for Gingrich, there is no evidence he can go beyond the recent surge despite his steady debate performances.
Republican strategists are predicting the race will drag on because candidates can accumulate delegates throughout the primary season rather than concede early. This will not be helpful. With an underwhelming field and the debates failing to ignite interest in any policy initiative (9-9-9 does not do it!), it is beginning to appear that the main beneficiary of the Republican race may very well be Barack Obama.
Obama is vulnerable in 2012 and there is little expectation that the economy will pick up enough to give him enough of a bounce to ensure a second term. The president, however, still has the bully pulpit and has been looking more presidential since last summer’s debt ceiling debacle. Moreover, the Republican campaigns haven’t done much to attract voters, with the actual candidates score lower in the polls than the “generic Republican” when matched against Obama.
The approval rating for Congress, meanwhile, is approaching single-digit territory, making it a good target for Obama in 2012. Americans will not change for change’s sake when it come to choosing a president, and it is likely no one factor will sway the voter if the GOP nominee fails to present a viable alternative or generate some enthusiasm. Romney should ultimately win his party’s nomination, but unlike Obama in 2008 who defeated the formidable Hillary Clinton in the primaries, he is facing a less than stellar challenge from within his own party. This prospect usually benefits the incumbent in re-election.