Mytle Beach Debate - Pre-Game
Monday January 16, 2012
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With the exit of Jon Huntsman earlier today there will be only five candidates on the stage tonight at the Myrtle Beach Coliseum sponsored by Fox News Channel and the SC GOP.
In the latest Insider Advantage poll, Mitt Romney has jumped out to a double digit lead over second place Newt Gingrich with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum essentially tied for third.
Before his exit Huntsman and Rick Perry were tied for fifth in single digits. Here are the numbers via NewsMax.com
Romney: 32 percent
To show how quickly things are moving, the same poll released last Thursday showed Romney at 23 percent to Gingrich's 21.
Huntsman endorsed Romney at his late morning news conference and it is unlikely that his supporters will move toward Gingrich or Santorum, so at least on the margin this is good news for Romney.
Also over the weekend a group of Evangelical Christians voted (75%-25%) to endorse Rick Santorum over Newt Gingrich, but to my knowledge they didn't back up that endorsement with ads, mail, phones, surrogates, or anything else so the impact of the endorsement appears to be muted, if not useless.
We are still a week away from the election in South Carolina. That means there is still more time available to these candidates before South Carolinians vote than they had between the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
So, on to tonight's debate (9-11 EST)
Undecided/ No opinion: 7
If the polling has any value, Romney's campaign is about two days from going into a four-corner-offense: Passing the ball around to keep it away from Gingrich or Santorum to run out the clock.
Prior to the Iowa Caucuses, the Conventional Wisdom ("conventional" meaning "political reporters" and "wisdom" being a synonym for "Sitting-at-the-Des-Moines-Marriott-bar-and-trying-to-guess-what-will-happen") was that Romney couldn't possibly win South Carolina because he is Mormon and South Carolina Republicans are overwhelmingly Evangelical Christians.
Apparently being President Barack Obama next November is more important than where (as we heard in the most recent ABC debate) the candidates stand on a state's ability to ban contraception.
Romney can't look like he has this wrapped up tonight. He has to engage, but not bully; respond, but not rise to the bait; and, most of all, remind South Carolina voters they he is the only candidate on the stage who has a shot at beating Obama.
Aside from the Insider Advantage poll showing Romney pulling away from the field, another poll may be more important - and more damaging - to Gingrich's campaign. A new Fox News poll shows Gingrich's favorable/unfavorable nationally to be 27-56 (Romney 45-38). And on the question "Who has run the most positive campaign?" Romney leads with 27% (Gingrich at 11%) and on "Who has run the nastiest campaign" Gingrich leads with 29% (Romney at 13%).
That may not be fair, but there is a lesson to be learned: Romney let the PAC associated, but not coordinating, with his campaign handle the dirty work, while he was positive on the stump. Because Gingrich IS his own campaign, voters have seen the "Angry Newt" since Caucus night in Iowa, and were reminded they have not been all that fond of him over the decades.
Nevertheless, Gingrich does have some distance between him and Ron Paul/Rick Santorum so his task tonight is to go back to "Professor Newt" and use the next week to ensure he can make the logical political case to go on to Florida.
There are two truths in this year's GOP Primary: Ron Paul will not be the nominee, and Ron Paul will not get out of the race.
In Mid-December, Paul noted he was 75 years old and might not have the stamina to compete everywhere between then and June:
"I'm not looking forward to anything being long and protracted. So I hope it ends rather quickly and we do real well in the beginning of the year," he said as reported by The Hill newspaper.
As we have discussed previously, there are vast differences in the way one campaigns in a caucus state and in a primary state. In spite of his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire, he has stated he might just compete in the caucus states and skip large, expensive states like Florida.
For tonight's debate, Ron Paul has the easiest task: He just needs to be Ron Paul. His supporters love it, his opponents ignore it, and he gets to keep going as long as he wants.
The question for Santorum is: Is the bloom off the rose?
Santorum essentially tied for first in Iowa (but second, even by eight votes is still second) but slid to a fifth place finish in New Hampshire where he had only a week to campaign, not six months.
Without Huntsman it is likely Santorum will beat only Rick Perry next Tuesday. This, even with his built-in attraction to the Christian Right in South Carolina.
Santorum can't get to Romney - he's too far ahead - and he doesn't need to get past Paul for the reasons we discussed above. Perry is a non-factor, so Santorum's only target tonight must be Gingrich.
Santorum has to remind South Carolina voters who are supporting Gingrich that only he, Santorum, is the rightful holder of the non-Romney Conservative title and I look for Santorum to remind voters of Gingrich's history with Nancy Pelosi, individual mandates, and non-Conservative positions.
We have seen Gingrich bristle when challenged on these issues, so the Santorum-Gingrich volleys might be the most interesting part of this debate.
Perry's first instinct on the night of the Iowa Caucuses - to go back to Austin and reassess his campaign - was the correct one. However he was talked into getting back into the race the next morning it was the wrong things to do.
On today's Secret Decoder Ring Page: Links to the Insider Advantage
Perry didn't compete in New Hampshire and drew less than one percent of the vote. He vowed to come directly to South Carolina as the only true Southern Conservative but it is not clear that South Carolinians see they have much in common with Texans.
In any event, Perry has not generated any positive coverage of note, and his Gingrich-esque attacks on Romney ("Vulture Capitalism") sounded flat coming from a man who has been on the public's payroll essentially his whole adult life.
The best Perry can hope to accomplish tonight (and in Thursday night's debate in Columbus, SC) is to begin rebuilding his reputation as a very successful Governor which was far higher before he was convinced to enter this race the first time, much less the second.
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