Published on TheHill.com on November 29, 2011
The conventional wisdom is that the GOP nomination race has boiled down to Mitt Romney versus Newt Gingrich. Not so fast! A contest limited to these two men would leave two key Republican constituencies unsatisfied. And unsatisfied voters tend to stray. Particularly in Iowa.
While Romney is the strong favorite among the financial and political base of the Republican Party and Gingrich is the strong favorite among national security types, neither plays very well with evangelicals or Tea Party activists. Until these two vital elements of the Republican coalition have been satisfied, the fat lady has not sung and we cannot assume a two-way race.
Evangelicals don’t like Romney because he is Mormon. Unfair, unjust, bigoted — but true. Tea Party types don’t like him because of RomneyCare in Massachusetts, a more legitimate beef. Both groups would probably prefer Gingrich to Romney, but neither is enamored with Newt. Evangelicals choke on his personal baggage and remember that, as Speaker, he tended to put fiscal and economic issues first. Southern Baptists — who make up half the evangelical vote — are not thrilled with a converted Roman Catholic from the South. Tea Party people see Newt as part of the Republican establishment. He’s not as bad as current Speaker John Boehner, in their view, but he’s not simpatico with the Tea Party, either.
In a two-way race, the Tea Party and evangelicals probably would go with Gingrich to stop Romney, but it’s too early to have to settle for a candidate they don’t really like. So there is clearly an opening for another candidate to make it a three-way race — at least in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Who will it be? Herman Cain is the obvious alternative. But he might have blundered badly by way of his inexplicable decision to “reassess” his candidacy. He stayed in the race and all that, but he seemed to waver. In doing so, he lent some credence to the new allegations of an affair just when it was being discredited by a review of the accusing woman’s checkered history. If Cain can regain his footing and do well in the debates by returning to his 9-9-9 theme and focusing on the fundamental reform it represents, he could be the third candidate.
If Cain falters, can Rick Perry step up? Probably not. He has performed so poorly as a candidate that his incompetence has become its own negative. That, on top of his positions on the vaccination issue and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, would seem enough to bar a comeback.
That could leave Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Bachmann has never really stumbled. She looked bad saying that HPV vaccines can cause mental retardation, but she has been strong and effective in all the debates. She is obviously very knowledgeable on national security issues and highly articulate on the deficit and ObamaCare. Particularly if Cain can’t recover, look for Bachmann to move into the void. After all, she’s not far behind in Iowa. The Insider Advantage Poll has her at 10 percent, tied with Cain and behind Romney (12 percent), Paul (13 percent) and Gingrich (28 percent). We Ask America has her tied with Romney for second place, at 13 percent, behind Gingrich at 29 percent. It is easy to see Bachmann finishing a strong second in Iowa and getting back into the race.
Santorum has all the right positions, but doesn’t really turn voters on. He seems self-righteous, complaining and somewhat self-indulgent. His subtext is always, “You are not giving me my due. I was for these issues before any of you guys, and nobody realizes it.” He seems to see himself as the victim in the Republican debates, complaining about the placement of his lectern, his scarcity of airtime and the general injustice of it all. Not an attractive picture.
So look for Cain or Bachmann to move up, depending on how the former does in the next few days. Nature and politics both abhor a vacuum, and that’s what we have on the right of the Republican primary field these days.