What’s More Interesting than Republican Primaries? Organizing!

By Al Giordano

There comes a moment in a political forecaster’s journey when the thing he’s good at analyzing just ceases to hold enough interest for him to go through the motions. Such it is, at least for today, on the eve of the Republican primaries in Arizona (Mitt Romney will win as he did in Nevada; the demographics are even older and more religiously oriented toward him) and Michigan (four polls taken on Sunday have the contest between Romney and Rick Santorum with neither candidate showing momentum nor a lead outside the margin of error). They’re both awful candidates and worse human beings in their own special ways. It's impossible to care about either of them.

If I have to swing for the fences and pick one I’d say that Democrats and Independents who want to prolong the GOP primaries longer to further weaken the eventual nominee, if they’re smart, will head to the polls tomorrow, hold their noses, and cast a vote for Santorum if only to keep the this train wreck of a contest flipping down the rails into the next set of primaries and caucuses. Every time there’s a candidates’ debate the general election public ends up with a lower opinion of all of them. The motto for Spring 2012 ought to be: Keep dopes alive!

And here’s a memo to the Supreme Court, who thought its decisions paving the way for mega-millionaire SuperPacs would help the rich consolidate political power: Can you guys say “unintended consequences?” What has precisely kept the richest candidate in the race from closing the deal on his nomination is that other rich guys are allowed to play like never before to keep their pet candidates, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, alive and in the hunt long after when, in previous years, they’d likely already be out of it or about to be. Negative ads on each of them are dominating the airwaves in every primary and caucus state, and this is great news for those who favor President Obama’s reelection: A circular fratricide among the elites. What’s not to love about that? Or about the fact that Romney has to defend, with his millions, his home state, where unlike the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, he really was “a governor’s son.”

Since I believe in the basic intelligence of human nature, I’ll pick Rick in a photo finish, thanks to savvy crossover voters who want to keep seeing 'em collide. Perhaps a Field Hand or two will want to get out there and make me right.

But even if Santorum implodes from his recent missteps (a lackluster debate last week and the vetting of his previous attacks on rock and roll, the supposed vehicle by which Satan, according to him, is wrecking America), we still have Newt (lots more fun than Rick), and his big-money backers to pick up where Santorum leaves off, who can pop back up skewer Romney for a few more rounds.

The happiest person with this entire scenario has to be Michele Obama, because nothing in the Republican contest is making her husband nervous enough to crave a cigarette. And this is the proof of how much the opposing party hates Barack Obama: They're denying him even a reasonable explanation for coming home from the Oval Office emanating the sweet scent of tobacco. "Sorry, Honey, it's just that I'm so nervous about this campaign," just isn't going to fly - not yet, at least - in the Obama household. C'mon guys! Give the guy a contest at least so he can enjoy a frickin' cigarette.

So, while we're waiting for the walking dead to become interesting, let me talk with you about what really does excite me: Community Organizing. We saw a lot of that in the 2008 primaries but this year’s won’t uncloak (although it’s happening intensely in preparation) until the general election campaign starts for real.

I’d like to share with Field Hands the text of my remarks the other day at the first Nonviolence Training session of the Mexican movement against the war on drugs, something we’ve been reporting heavily for the past 11 months on Narco News: Nothing Is Ever Won Without Organizing.

Here is a brief excerpt and then you can choose, if you like, to click to read the whole thing (translated from the original Spanish):

"I will speak about organization, based on my own experiences as a community organizer and a journalist. The first thing you should know is this: All organizing begins with the telling of a story.

"When we listen carefully to somebody’s story, we learn what motivates him, what she is passionate about. When we listen and learn from this story, we can then organize that person to do things that help us get what we want, by helping him and her get what they want, too. Listening is the first skill and duty of a community organizer. Before we can get somebody to do something, we have to learn what he and she want, which is usually different than what we presumed they wanted.

"My story began at a workshop very much like this one. I was 17. It was an eight-hour nonviolence training session for people who wanted to participate in an occupation of a construction site in the Northeastern United States where a nuclear power plant was being built in a town called Seabrook…"

I’ll dedicate these remarks to all community organizers everywhere. You may not be getting the media attention that these clowns on the ballot tomorrow are receiving, but it’s your work, and not theirs, that keeps changing the world over and over and over again…


Romney's Pyrrhic Victory

By Al Giordano

While tea leaves point to a likely Florida primary victory for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tonight, the former Massachusetts governor will emerge only marginally ahead in the delegate count with 46 of the 50 states yet to cast a vote.

But the costs of this victory to Romney go far beyond the $17 million in attack ads he and his Super PACs deployed to stop – now for the second time in a young campaign – the rise of rival Newt Gingrich. Hell hath no wrath like a Gingrich scorched. The former House Speaker is the Keith Richards of US politics: no matter what debauchery he passes through he never dies. Newt is the zombie candidate. Burn him, bomb him, poison him, hack him into a thousand pieces and he quickly reassembles and gets back up again, madder than before and coming right back at ya'.

The story out of Florida isn't Romney's win (and if, as some late polls suggest, it ends up thinner than double digits, even that will be questioned). It is that Romney has failed, again, to eliminate his nemesis. But that’s not even the worst that happened to Mitt in Florida. Ten days ago, general election polls showed him in a tie with President Barack Obama in this must-win swing state. Then Romney had to debate Gingrich and the other candidates and make bold statements to prove his fealty to the far right GOP base that are far outside of mainstream public opinion, especially the views of independent swing voters. The new general election numbers in Florida are Obama 49 percent to 41 for Romney; a dramatic turnabout for the president in a matter of days. (All the Republican candidates have been wounded for the general election by their adventures in pander-to-the-base wingnuttery, the poll also shows: Obama 50, Paul 36; Obama 50, Santorum 35; Obama 52, Gingrich 35.) The survey was taken January 25 to 27 and has a 2.6 margin of error.

This, without the Obama campaign spending a cent on advertising in Florida: Given, his State of the Union address clearly boosted the president’s popularity there and nationwide with those independent swing voters who decide elections. And his campaign has cleverly used each primary and caucus so far to reignite the trained community organizers of his field organization, state by state, that took him to the White House four years ago. One Field Hand reports “huge turnout” at the events this week opening Obama campaign headquarters throughout the Sunshine State. And the Republican candidates’ own statements and behavior has frightened even Democrats who, only weeks ago, were angry and disillusioned with their president enough to say so publicly. Today, many of those same people have gone from declarations of "I'm not voting" to posting “I’ve got his back” messages to their social network pages.

So while the Field projects Romney to win tonight’s Florida primary, it’s clear that the real winner of the contest is Barack Obama. Romney’s victory came at a cost that will haunt him for months to come as Zombie Gingrich keeps rising from the tomb.

We’ve now watched three Republican primary and one caucus vote. And each time the pundits of the press corps have declared those contests to have been deciders of the nomination. Not so fast, kids! The Unbearable Lightness of Romney will continue to make him victim to the whims of a fickle Republican electorate that remains unhappy with its crop of candidates. Each time one of them seems to gather steam – Santorum in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, Gingrich in South Carolina – the momentum turns against that guy in the next contest. The moment somebody looks like the virtual nominee, buyer’s remorse sets in and the tables turn anew.

What’s more is that relatively few delegates will be at stake in the coming weeks, most of them in caucus states (Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota and Maine between February 4 and 11), giving Ron Paul a chance to emerge here or there as an underdog winner on more libertarian friendly ground, and giving Gingrich the breathing room he needs to regroup and assemble the minimal resources to come back and fight again. Gingrich will pick a state to reenter sprinting. Will it be Arizona on February 28? (Romney is expected to handily win Michigan, where his father was once governor, on that same date.) Or will it be Super Tuesday on March 6, where some states – Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia (where only Romney and Paul are on the ballot) – give home field advantage to Romney, but others – Georgia, Tennessee, perhaps Oklahoma – will be friendlier to Gingrich? And the big one on Super Tuesday – Ohio – will be set up by the media as probably the most telling battleground that day, which is still five weeks away. A week after that Gingrich gets to play in Alabama and Mississippi, and the back-and-forth ping pong game of victories and defeats between the two leading Republican candidates will keep going, perhaps all the way to a brokered convention. At least that’s what the party establishment fears.

In the end, nothing is decided by Florida. Not until November, anyway…

Gingrich Took a Month to Rebound, but Here He Is

By Al Giordano

Now that everyone in this electoral projections business is picking former House Speaker Newt Gringich to win a come-from-behind victory in today's South Carolina primary, let's reflect on why they had so little faith until after the polls began turning his way. Less than a week ago, the New York Times' 538 blog projected former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with an 82 percent chance to win in the Palmetto State and, citing its method of "regression analysis" gave him a 98 percent chance to win the GOP nomination.

What a difference a week makes. One good debate performance, another great debate triumph (sparked by a flopped sex scandal attack of the sort that inoculated Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign) and suddenly Gingrich is back in a big way. The Field projects him to win today's third-in-the-nation contest, setting up a months-long back-and-forth two-way contest ahead as Gingrich and Romney battle through upcoming state primaries and caucuses (with an ocassional Ron Paul boomlet in the latter, to keep things weird enough). The also-rans have run out of gas. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum just could not get a word in edgewise and probably wishes he had a sex scandal of his own now. Former Utah Governor Rick Jon Huntsman and Texas Governor Rick Perry are now officially out. And Gingrich will now play Itchy to Romney's Scratchy for the coming weeks and months and then in the end somebody will get blown up and everybody gets to laugh.

But the real lesson here is that polling is not the most reliable indicator for early presidential primaries and caucuses. It wasn't four years ago when the pundits and pollsters tried to feed us the "inevitability" of Hillary Clinton's nomination for president, nor is it this cycle when Politico's Roger Simon wrote, after the Iowa caucuses that "It's over. Let's all head to Tampa" and coronate Romney as the nominee. A lot of people who bet on Romney on Intrade (with a 90 percent supposed chance of winning South Carolina) are likely to be parted with their money tonight because they were foolish enough to believe the mass media hype.

Field Hands who read this column, of course, had good reason not to fall into the trap. You read here on December 22 - a month ago - our opinion that Gingrich Could Still Win Iowa, or Lose It and Still Win the Nomination and the reasons behind that thinking, which are now emerging as the core dynamic of this nomination fight. You also read on January 2 our projection that Santorum would win Iowa (it's now official that he won by 34 votes), where we added: "Gingrich and Perry, both claiming the role of putative 'Southern Candidate,' will likely pull out all the stops to try and reemerge in South Carolina, too. And I may yet come full circle by then to my original instincts that Gingrich had the best chance of becoming the Anti-Romney."

Back on December 22, I wrote:

"Gingrich is not going away, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries down the stretch, especially in the South, and I still think, as I wrote in April 2010, that the media - perhaps partly out of the intense personal dislike he provokes - has always underestimated him. I dislike him, too. But that doesn't color the cold and rational projections that y'all rely on me to make. This should have been evident to all the 'professionals' of the pundit class 20 months ago! Of all the GOP hopefuls, he's the only man with a plan. That makes him armed and dangerous and nothing that has happened so far, not even his sudden dip in Iowa polls, causes me to reconsider my general sense that in the sum of all the primaries and caucuses of the coming months, Newt Gingrich is likely to carve his initials with a switchblade through Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, or anyone else he perceives as standing between him and the Republican nomination."

First instincts are often the best instincts. And paying too much heed to "conventional wisdom," the pack reporters that follow it, or mechanical "regression analysis" that leave the human touch out of political forecasting is what has everybody else scrambling today to adjust to what a botched sex scandal attack, an agile candidate, and two strong debate performances can accomplish in the final days of an early primary. I love it. The ghost of John Henry, tonight, may prove alive and well, beating the steam shovel once again. And that will give us weeks or months of enjoyment watching two angry men of dubious character tear each other up, one of which will emerge wounded and limping to face President Barack Obama in November.

Huntsman Isn't the Anti-Romney; He's the More Authentic Romney

By Al Giordano


Every four years as the first-in-the-nation caucuses approach in Iowa, back east the national and New Hampshire (read: Boston, Massachusetts) media recites the old yarn, “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.” There are, in fact, 47 citations of this quote since December 22 in the major media aggregated by Google News.

It’s a popular little ditty. And it’s been entirely wrong for the last 30 years.

Decades ago, New Hampshire did pick presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter each forged a non-incumbent path to the White House by winning New Hamsphire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Think you're a smart political junkie? Answer me this: When was the last time a non-incumbent (that is, not a sitting president or vice president) took first place in New Hampshire to go on and win the election?

It was 32 years ago and his name was Ronald Reagan.

That's the last time that New Hampshire "picked" a president.

What happened to the Granite State’s former primacy in the electoral process? The downfall came via what could be called the Massachusetts invasion. People born out of state, many from next-door Massachusetts, but also from New York, New Jersey and other industrial mid-Atlantic states, began to populate the charming little state of New Hampshire. Boston TV channels 4, 5 and 7 displaced Manchester’s WMUR channel 9 as primary news sources, just as the Boston Globe and Herald cut into the market niches of Granite State dailies. White-collar workers commuted from southern NH to the Bay State and listened to Boston talk radio and music stations in the car.

And then, prior to 1988, then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis figured out that the state to the north was already a media colony of his own commonwealth, and mounted a NH primary victory to win the Democratic nomination for president.

Four years later, in 1992, Massachusetts then-junior United States senator, Paul Tsongas, won the NH primary. In 2004, his senate successor, John Kerry, did the same. They were “favorite sons” in the state next door. Now, if you are a Massachusetts pol in the New Hampshire primary, victory is expected (so much so that in 2008, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lost the NH primary to John McCain, the wheels quickly came off his campaign bus).

Romney’s defeat four years ago aside, in recent decades, coming in second in the New Hampshire primary has in fact served as a better springboard to the presidency than outright winning the contest has accomplished for anyone. Bill Clinton came in second to Tsongas in 1992 and got nicknamed “the comeback kid.”  George W. Bush placed to McCain in 2000 and repeated that luck. And Barack Obama, in 2008, placed to Hillary Clinton in 2008, but turned his “concession speech” into the single-largest night of online fundraising and momentum in US electoral history.

(Walter Mondale, losing to Gary Hart in 1984, and Bob Dole, to Pat Buchanan in 1996, forged second-place NH finishes into national party nominations, but went on to lose the general election against popular incumbents).

This is all to state the obvious: Everybody expects Romney to win in Tuesday’s NH primary – he was at 49 percent in the polls in a crowded field just a week ago! – and so the real attention is on second place, a spot that Texan US Rep. Ron Paul has occupied since the end of last year. Paul’s candidacy, though, is something like previous crusades of Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson; not even he believes he can become the president! He’s in it for other motives, and for purposes of analysis, we can punt on whether they are ideological or ego-driven. It doesn’t much matter to the narrative of who gets to be the GOP nominee or have a shot at serving as president starting next year.

Behind Romney and Paul is the third tier of candidates trying to break out of the pack and emerge as the Anti-Romney: the Iowa victor and former US senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum (it seems he really did win the Iowa caucuses outright, after a typographical error gave Romney 20 votes he never obtained: The Field 1, the pundits and polls, 0), former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and former Utah Governor and recent US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., each would love to come in a surprise second – or at least edge out the rest of the tier for third – in Tuesday’s primary to set up a chance to knock Romney down when the contests move to the South later this month.

While Santorum, Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry - bypassing NH for the January 21 South Carolina primary - are jockeying to become the Anti-Romney, the recent boom-let in NH polls by Huntsman is interesting from a different angle: a member of the same Church of Latter Day Saints as Romney (although more secular than Romney, a former Mormon bishop, Huntsman likes to boast that his grandfather, contrary to his Church’s teaching of abstinence, owned a saloon), Huntsman isn’t gambling on becoming the standard bearer of the GOP’s Southern Baptist and Evangelical base. Rather, he wants to be the shadow Romney; the guy who can pick up the pieces when Romney stumbles in the road ahead. Think of Huntsman as the Tim Tebow in the contest, waiting behind Kyle Orton for his shot at starting quarterback.

After 160 campaign stops in New Hampshire (Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses altogether), the grassroots organizing is paying off. In the RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls, Huntsman has bounced from the back of the pack to a third-place tie with Santorum, each at 11.2 percent. Last night’s PPP survey even had Huntsman challenging Paul for second place, with these results: Romney 35 percent, Paul 18, Huntsman 16, Gingrich 12, Santorum 11, Perry 1 (and a freak 3 percent status for former Louisiana governor – and former Democrat – Buddy Roemer).

Somewhere in that sweet spot between second place or strong third place there is the possibility that Huntsman emerges as a media narrative coming out of New Hampshire’s vote. What would that suggest? While it would not set Huntsman up for Anti-Romney status in Evangelical-heavy South Carolina on January 21, it might be worse news for Romney in this sense: How could another centrist, corporate CEO (of the chemical company Huntsman Corporation), and Mormon take a significant vote away from Romney’s NH base in just a week’s time? Indeed, if Huntsman takes 15 percent or more, that comes pretty much out of the 15 percent or so that Romney has sunk in the past week’s NH polls (with another part of it coming from moderate NH Republicans who had "settled" for Ron Paul before learning more about his wild patchwork of issue stances).

Romney’s “Huntsman problem” is this: Jon Huntsman is a more authentic version of Mitt Romney! Huntsman’s survival in NH would soon become a constant reminder of the glib flip-floppy phoniness of the commander-in-chief of Hair Force One that is Romney today.

Romney stepped into his “Huntsman Problem,” big time, when he criticized Huntsman for having served as US Ambassador to China in the Obama administration, and Huntsman parried it like a candidate ready for prime time. Scott Conroy of RealClearPolitics reports:

“Let’s just be honest about it: I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting his country first,” Huntsman told RCP, as he was surrounded by a crush of reporters. “He’s got this bumper sticker that says, you know, ‘Proud of America’ or ‘Believe in America.’ How can you believe in America when you’re not willing to serve America? That’s just phony nonsense.”

Given that Huntsman – like Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum – never served in the US military (Paul and Perry are the two Air Force veterans in the litter) – it’s pretty crafty that Huntsman was able to pull a ju-jitsu move and use Romney’s attack on him to remind that Romney is a Chicken Hawk. This, in the week when photos emerged (see above) of a 19-year-old Romney protesting against anti-war-in-Vietnam protesters at Stanford University, only to then accept a “missionary deferment” from actual military service…

“I stepped up when my president asked, and I always will -- it’s part of my philosophy,” Huntsman said in Hampstead. “I know that may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take, but most of America is with me because in the end, they want this America to be run together. They want us all to find solutions, but they want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people.”

Huntsman has also taken to bopping around New Hampshire in an Air Force pilot bomber’s jacket with an American flag patch on the arm (as also seen in the photo montage, above). He’s pulled off the PR miracle of turning an ambassadorship (something that more often than not is gifted as a political plum for past support) into something akin to combat duty. But, again, that speaks as much to Romney’s weaknesses as it does to Huntsman’s strengths.

The sudden rise of Huntsman in New Hampshire primary polling also indicates that Newt Gingrich’s kamikaze negative campaign against Romney (returning the favor from Iowa, where Newt was savaged by Romney’s “SuperPACs” in a TV ad barrage) is working to chip away at the former Massachusetts governor’s support – and at his media-fed luster of “inevitability.”

There are other ways in which Huntsman is a superior, more authentic and able version of what Romney purports to be. Most of them come down to one of the key differences that allowed Obama, in 2008, to outmaneuver the former frontrunner Hillary Clinton. It’s generational. Huntsman, born in 1960, is part of the more agile punk rock generation (as a youth he in fact played keyboards in a band called The Wizards) whereas Romney – who happened to be in Paris as a 21-year-old doing missionary work during the Situationist-inspired General Strike of May 1968 – carries himself much like other members of his generation in politics: there is a sense, watching him, that he knows he’s a fraud but keeps pushing on anyway because he doesn’t know any other way to be.

Huntsman's script, in fact, reads like a Republican version of his fellow punk-rock generation member Obama (see the words, above, about how Americans “want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people,” which are almost verbatim out of Obama’s 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech).

In fact, if I were a New Hampshire voter unregistered in any party, I’d think in “Operation Chaos” terms and utilize the Independent voter’s right to cast a Republican ballot to go in there and give Huntsman a little extra push. All Huntsman needs to do is come out of New Hampshire with enough credibility to remain on the debate stages for the upcoming primaries and caucuses and serve as that “place-marker candidate” for centrist and business-oriented Republicans that have lined up behind Romney but who are beginning to notice the significant cracks in His Phoniness’ hull.

A third place finish in New Hampshire, or, god forbid, a second place steal from Ron Paul, and Huntsman could emerge as the story out of New Hampshire, following in the footsteps of guys named Clinton, Bush and Obama. It seems almost impossible that Huntsman could rob the GOP nomination from pols with more money and name-recognition, but it likewise seems unlikely that the scent on the Romney rose is going to keep smelling as sweet to Republicans who want a candidate with a shot at defeating Obama.

Many long distance runner champions have shared their strategy of remaining a few steps behind the leader for most of the race only to wait for the frontrunner to stumble or fatigue in the final laps and then sprint ahead. Not only does the current frontrunner have to contend with a pool of rivals elbowing each other to fill the Anti-Romney majority niche in the party, but even if those guys keep dividing that vote, the Mittster may, after Tuesday night, have to look over his shoulder at another candidate whose gambit is not to become the Anti-Romney, but, more like a stalker, to become Mitt Romney (or, better said, supplant his position in the contest).

The Field projects Mitt Romney to come in first in the New Hampshire primary, but finds the contests for second and third place more interesting, reminding that they have been more significant at "picking presidents" in recent decades.

Meet Jon Huntsman. He’s kind of like Romney except that he’s smarter, more agile, and more genuine than Romney. Not that that's a particularly difficult thing to be. Most human beings are. But Huntsman happens to be a candidate on the ballot competing with Romney. He may flop on Tuesday night or he may hit that sweet spot that others before him reached with a second place or strong third place finish. If the latter happens, Romney will then have two flanks to defend in the upcoming primaries and caucuses - something that for him would require from Mitt the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, not a skill we've yet seen from him - which is more precarious a balancing act than simply having to keep the Anti-Romney field populous, divided and SuperPACed in a big money Whack-a-Mole game of pounding the hammer on the head of whichever one takes the lead at any moment.

It’s the sort of dynamic that, if it happens – and it is entirely plausible, although no sure thing, that it can – would make Romney’s tenuous hold on the “inevitable” armor more vulnerable with each passing day.


“Inevitable” Romney Meets the Santorum Surprise in Iowa

By Al Giordano

In The Field’s December 22 analysis of tomorrow’s Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa, which was largely dedicated to how the media and its pundits underestimate former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s chances to rebound, I inserted this placeholder paragraph:

“Before concluding, I’ll say a few words about former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He could still surprise in Iowa. With the graceless falls of Bachman and Perry, it’s now between Santorum and Gingrich as to who can possibly coalesce the Evangelical right behind one candidate in Iowa. But that would require a sudden Santorum surge in the New Year’s Des Moines Register poll.”

Well, that poll – the quadrennial gold standard when it comes to fixing Iowa caucus expectations – came out on New Year’s Eve. And it shows exactly that: the fickle grassroots Christian conservative base of the Republican Party has indeed begun to coalesce behind an Anti-Romney, but his name isn’t Gingrich, it’s former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum.

The Field now projects that Santorum will win the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. But Caveat Emptor, not everybody agrees: Former Massachusetts governor Romney still leads in most polls and in the aggregate average of all polls. US Rep. Ron Paul of Texas led in the Public Policy Polling survey taken Saturday and Sunday. Nate Silver’s computers give Romney a 38 percent chance of Iowa victory, Paul a 34 percent chance Santorum a 24 percent shot (that’s up from 12 percent yesterday and will likely rise again overnight; yes, we can also accurately project what the projectors will say as reality sinks in) and Gingrich a 3 percent dark horse possibility. Santorum is also the only GOP candidate in Iowa that has not led in a single public opinion poll in all of 2011. But I think he’s going to win it, and I’ll tell you why.

The “Romney is inevitable” script is oh so reminiscent of what happened on the Democratic side four years ago, when the pundits told us that then-US Senator Hillary Clinton was a lead-pipe cinch to become the party’s nominee. Romney has benefited greatly from some of the same factors that drove the Hillary-as-Frontrunner mythology: the coalesced economic support from Wall Street interests, air support from the media organizations they own, and a large pool of primary rivals to divide those Democrats less enthused about her (remember that Obama had to contend with former US Sen. John Edwards, then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and US Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, none of them political neophytes, all good debaters, before he emerged, in Iowa, as that cycle’s Anti-Clinton).

In 2008, Obama did emerge, though, mainly because his campaign resurrected the seemingly ancient and forgotten practice of community organizing, both in his door-to-door grassroots field efforts, the intensive training of his volunteers in those arts, and the conversion of the organizing concept to what was then a new phenomenon in political campaign fundraising: the primacy of the small donor, multiplied hundreds of thousands of times and oiled by the speed of the Internet.

While none of the Republican candidates in 2012 have come close to the level of grassroots gravitas of the Obama ’08 campaign prior to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, we have to remember two things:

First, that prior to Obama’s emergence, the American leaders in grassroots organizing were not on the left or Democratic side of the spectrum. It was the Christian Right, with its Sunday church pulpits, phone banking, direct mail fundraising and house parties that had been the phantom field organization of the Republican party presidential victories in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000 and, again in 2004, when that was the key factor in defending then-president George W. Bush’s reelection from Democrat John Kerry in key swing states like Ohio. That grassroots field apparatus is still there, even if it has fractured into many competing organizations and sectors that have not been able to – not until tomorrow night, anyway – coalesce behind a single GOP presidential candidate. But it’s still there, lurking, a specter that haunts Willard Mitt Romney and his “inevitability” claims.

The second thing to remember is that Obama’s grassroots and online fundraising really didn’t kick in to high gear until the night he won the Iowa primary and, a week later, the night he lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton, was in fact the night that the Obama campaign broke all online fundraising records in US politics.

As we’ve argued for 20 months now, all it takes to derail the Romney Express is for the Evangelical Right of the GOP base to unite behind a single candidate. As hard as it is for political factions to come to alliance, the early caucus and primary process tends to force them into it. Americans are pragmatic when it comes to politics. They gravitate toward winners and electoral contests almost always boil down to two or three candidates who are perceived as having a chance to win. The votes and the money then drop the also-rans and follow those leaders.

While each of his rivals has enjoyed a brief stint atop the Iowa polls (in this order, over the past six months, it went Romney, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and now back to Romney again), Santorum has been out there doing the grassroots organizing while the media paid almost no attention to him at all. As Bloomberg correspondents John McCormick and Tim Higgins report:

“The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, now in third place in the most closely watched Iowa poll, has spent more time in the state than any opponent, traveling to all 99 counties over more than 100 days. He’s trying to validate the campaign axiom of the Iowa caucuses: organize, organize, organize and get hot at the end.”

The conservative National Review Online’s Robert Costa also notices the late results of Santorum’s grassroots organizing:

“Des Moines, Iowa – On Sunday night, I stopped by Santorum’s headquarters in nearby Urbandale. The cramped offices were bustling. Supporters, from college kids to retirees, made phone calls and visitors were constant, most of them looking for lawn signs. According to an organizer, the campaign has enlisted over 1,100 caucus captains.”

The stylistic differences between the Santorum campaign and the Romney campaign are as stark as their ideological tendencies. Santorum has crisscrossed Iowa’s 99 counties in a pick-up truck, quietly convincing GOP precinct leaders and church ministers, while Romney has relied more on big-money “SuperPACs” to carpet bomb the airwaves and leaked big media reporter spoon-fed negative story “scoops” taking down successive frontrunners in a row.

Indeed, if Santorum has now boxed Gingrich out of the Anti-Romney position, it is because Gingrich did too much of his campaigning via the airwaves and did not devote the requisite time to grassroots organizing that Iowans respect so much. And Gingrich might have pulled it off – with Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota US Rep. Michele Bachmann each following ex-candidate Herman Cain into electoral oblivion caused by their own erratic missteps under the glare of media attention – had Santorum not been working the field while everyone else was trying to manipulate the heavens of “conventional wisdom.”

Now that the Des Moines Register poll has signaled to GOP conservatives that Rick Santorum is up there in the first tier with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, watch as Gingrich, Perry and Bachmann, and even Paul, each bleed support over the next 30 hours to the new Anti-Mitt. Paul had been the other candidate with a bona fide field organization, albeit most of it imported from other states from his boisterous male volunteers so adept at packing “straw poll” events over the past year, but face it: part of his December surge was entirely based on the perception by some conservative Republicans that he was the only one who could best Romney in Iowa. (And if you need any more proof that Paul is a lost cause, look no further than Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald, now desperately trying to sell Paul to “progressives,” and revealing his own ideological axes to grind in the process: Greenwald is a reliably wrong bellwether in the sense that any bandwagon he attempts to form goes quickly next into the dustbin of history; yes, he is that bad a prognosticator.)

To paraphrase Des Moines Register pollster Ann Selzer – nobody polls Iowans more accurately – after watching Santorum’s numbers rise night after night: Momentum, thy name is Rick Santorum.

None of this stops the national Republican Industrial Complex and its media allies from pushing the Romney-is-inevitable meme (just as the Democratic Industrial Complex tried to do for Hillary Clinton four years ago). Politico’s Roger Simon tweeted after the Des Moines Register poll showed Romney in the lead that the party faithful might as well surrender to Mitt and get on with its Florida nominating convention next summer: “It’s over. Let’s all head for Tampa.” They say that even if Romney loses Iowa he will still win New Hampshire next week (and he probably will, just as other Massachusetts pols from Dukakis to Tsongas to Kerry have triumphed in the Granite State as boy-next-door favorite sons; that’s practically a given).

Yet my Boston Phoenix colleague, political reporter David Bernstein, did some actual shoe-leather reporting this weekend and found that Santorum has been stealthily doing the organizing spade work in New Hampshire, which votes on January 10, just as he has in Iowa.

“I spoke this evening with Santorum campaign manager Michael Biundo. Biundo is a New Hampshire guy. He took Frank Giunta from obscurity to Congress. For a time he headed a coalition of grassroots conservative groups in the state. Back in the day, he was part of the team that helped Pat Buchanan win the ’96 primary.

“He knows New Hampshire, is what I’m saying.

“Biundo tells me that, in addition to some endorsements in New Hampshire, ‘we’ve had key people, in key communities, talking to people. We’ve done the ID work, done the calls, had people going door-to-door, been visible at all the Republican events.’

“In short, all the things Huckabee didn’t do before winning Iowa.”

And it seems that Santorum has been doing the same in the next big primary after that, set for January 21 in South Carolina, announcing he has campaign chairmen in 41 of 46 Palmetto State counties.

Gingrich and Perry, both claiming the role of putative “Southern Candidate,” will likely pull out all the stops to try and reemerge in South Carolina, too. And I may yet come full circle by then to my original instincts that Gingrich had the best chance of becoming the Anti-Romney. But for tomorrow, I’m projecting Rick Santorum in Iowa, in spite of that all the “computer model” data-driven prediction machines have him in third place. That’s because, especially in the early caucuses and primaries, polling can only tell us so much. It does not measure field organization. It does not measure the bigotries and prejudices that respondents hide from pollsters (in this case, the Evangelical discrimination against Mormons which drives the imperative to find an Anti-Romney). And in the Iowa caucuses, polling has always undercounted the eventual Evangelical candidate's final vote.

It seems almost strange that the Evangelical candidate, this time, is going to be a Catholic from a mid-Atlantic industrial state like Pennsylvania. But Santorum is one of those radical fringe Catholics who homeschools his kids, has long lobbied for creationism (what he calls “intentional design”) to be taught in public schools as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution, thinks anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality are the defining “issues” of our times, and so he fits the Evangelical matrix like a warm and comfortable glove out to shovel snow on an Iowa winter’s day.

Santorum has also gambled that such “social issues” will triumph over Romney’s economic determinism. Romney has basically sought to run Reagan’s 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter, this time versus Barack Obama 2012, asking voters if they are better off today than they were four years ago. Never mind that a financial industry CEO from Bain Capital is about the poorest standard-bearer one could invent as the new defender of “the 99 percent.” The dirty truth about America in 2012 is that – tea party and “occupy” claims aside – its economy is measurably improving, its jobless rate is going down, and the very middle class that complains about how screwed over it is will still riot in the chain store lanes on Black Friday to buy the latest holiday gifts and then line up, after the rioting and looting, at the checkout counter to dutifully pay for the loot.

As Keith Lazar, 62, of the town of Washington, Iowa told Eli Salislow of the Washington Post, “Life is Good.” Salislow describes the reality on the ground in Iowa as GOP candidates tell voters that the nation is in “crisis” and economic disaster:

“This is the Washington with a 4 percent unemployment rate, with record-breaking hog and cattle production, with a new high school and a $6 million library, with a newspaper that doesn’t bother to print a crime blotter, with heated sidewalks in front of the bank so customers never have to walk in the snow… It is also a place where, day after day, presidential candidates make their case that the country is a horrific mess.”

Making the case that the United States is in an economic shambles has itself become a millionaire business from right to left, from Rush Limbaugh to Paul Krugman! Demagogues, all of them: preying on the guilt and fear of what is still the most comfortable land on earth. And that’s why Romney’s economic message will prove thin gruel to motivate and mobilize the Republican and Independent electorate even if he does become the nominee. And it’s also why “social issues” are, I project, going to carry the day tomorrow in Iowa, and push Santorum damn close to the top position, if not to first place itself.

Chances are you are reading this from a high speed Internet connection in the comfort of a heated shelter: proof enough that most of you are not worse off today than you were four years ago, and so most of you are going to vote based on issues other than economic worries. Heck, it won’t even necessarily be a vote cast on “issues,” but, rather, on which team organizes you best to vote for its guy. In Iowa on the Republican side, Santorum is the one – with an assist from pre-existing Evangelical organizations and organizers – who has apparently done it. Next November, it will more likely be the community organizing of the Obama reelection campaign. Or, to properly appropriate the electoral credo of 1992 to amend it for 2012 realities: It’s the Organizing, Stupid!


Gringrich Could Still Win Iowa, or Lose It and Still Win the Nomination

By Al Giordano


Hello Field Hands. It’s twelve days to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses to choose between Republican candidates for the US presidential nomination. I’ve been busy in Mexico and other lands in this 20ll, The Year of Civil Resistance. You can read more about all that the post below this one (and please do, you gotta know about the world around you to better understand where you are). But I heard a rumor that you have a presidential election gearing up in the United States, and – alas and of course – the political reporters and pundits seem as clueless and hapless as they’ve been every four years. So let's get down to business.

Remember this time eight years ago, when the polls and pundits were declaring Howard Dean a sure thing to win Iowa, only to be disappointed on caucus night by John Kerry? Do you recall four years ago, when, twelve days out, Hillary Clinton was up in the Hawkeye State by between four to 14 points according to five major polling organizations, only to be conquered by Obama at the actual caucuses?

Well, let’s see what the reliably wrong pundit class saying this year about the only contested caucus, the one on the Republican side.

Scott Galupo of US News & World Report assures us: “Romney poised for Iowa-New Hampshire sweep.”

Liz Marlantes writes in the Christian Science Monitor: “Rick Santorum, Iowa’s Dark Horse candidate, gaining ground."

Echoing the most common pack-journalists' spin we’ve heard this week from all corners, John Nichols, in The Nation, pronounces Gingrich’s Iowa hopes dead, that he’s “headed for footnote status.”

And Nate Silver, a few days ago, pegged Ron Paul with a 49 percent chance of winning Iowa. (He now has it down to 40 percent in a tie with Romney, but he sure got a Paul boom-let going and caused the political press corps to chirp along in harmony.)

During the 2008 cycle, The Field’s projections more often than not reached the same conclusions as Silver’s. He might be right. But I’m not convinced that Paul or Romney will win Iowa, or even if they do that either will go on to win the nomination, and here’s why:

Stuff happens in the final twelve days before the Iowa caucuses, and it’s hard to get accurate polling over the holidays. Then around New Year’s the Des Moines Register will weigh in with its own poll, which is typically given more weight by the rest of the media than all other polls. And in those last couple of days prior to the caucuses, party bosses and activists try to assess which candidates have a chance and there is suddenly momentum on behalf of two or three candidates, maximum, as supporters of the also-rans then gravitate toward the media-fed perceptions of who can win. Those are the hours when the supporters of candidates who aren’t doing well in the polls make their big jumps onto other more convincing bandwagons.

First, here are a few things we all need to know about the Iowa caucuses. 119,000 voters participated in them last round. I’d bet my bottom dollar that it will be under 100,000 – maybe significantly less – in 2012 because Republicans aren’t really happy with any of their candidates. Just look at the roller coaster ride of the past year from the Real Clear Politics graph of GOP candidate standings in the Iowa polls:

Now, I'm not sure what a "clusterfuck" looks like, but I'm pretty sure it looks something like that. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led in Iowa polls until July, then Minnesota US Rep. Michelle Bachman jumped into the lead until September, when Texas Governor Rick Perry became the party faithful’s new darling, only to be replaced atop the polls by crazy Herman Cain in September until his November slide, then former house speaker Newt Gingrich arose with a roar. He became the target of massive negative advertising – especially by Romney’s friends in those shady super-PACs, which bumped him back down to earth, now below Romney and the current poll leader, Texas US Rep. Ron Paul.

In other words, the GOP electorate is unsure and fickle about every one of them.

Think of it this way: Iowa Republicans have already had more wives and mistresses than Gingrich in 2011 alone!

Evangelical pastor Kerry Jech is probably a typical swing voter on this affair:

Jech, the pastor from Marshalltown, said he’s choosing between the four candidates that addressed the forum: Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry, but both he and his wife Jane, who’s running for state senate, may not have a decision before they walk in to caucus on Jan. 3.

He said a splintered evangelical electorate that brings Romney a win or helps him do well here “continues to be a concern” of his and just late last month he met with other conservative evangelical leaders about trying to unite behind one of the candidates so that does not happen. However, now he’s just looking to God to help make his own decision.

Hear that God? Not only do you have to help Tim Tebow win on the football field every Sunday, but now you’ve got to instruct 35,000 Evangelical caucus-goers on who to back on the first Tuesday night of the year.

If you add up the average support for the four candidates most appealing to Evangelicals, it goes like this: Gingrich 17.3, Perry 11.8, Bachman 8.3 and Santorum 7.0. That’s a total of 44.4 percent of a bloc of voters that, should any one of these four individuals show momentum in the final Des Moines Register poll, it is very plausible that enough of them will coalesce around him or her to punch through to a caucus victory.

The Evangelical imperative to “stop Romney,” in 2008, was the entire reason they held their noses and began lining up behind John McCain, even as they considered him a screaming liberal by Republican standards. I know it’s not polite to say it, and they almost never say it out loud in public, but Southern Baptists and other kinds of Evangelicals just do not like Mormons. It's like this dirty little secret that the politically-correct press corps isn't allowed to utter a word about. And for part of 2011 they were even willing to back a black guy named Cain to stop the Romney train.

The formerly 300 pound gorilla in the room (now at a svelte 190 pounds) is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee – who won Iowa in 2008 with 38 percent support (what is now divided between the four horse-pols of the apocalypse, Gingrich, Perry, Bachman and Santorum) – who insists he will not endorse a candidate, but said something curious this week to conservative political columnist Byron York: “Huckabee suggested that Mitt Romney might benefit from a splintering on the conservative side of the party. But he still believes that, even with less than three weeks before the caucuses, another surprise or two might be in store.”

It’s true that if Huckabee  did endorse one of them that person probably would shoot ahead to win Iowa. But I believe Huck when he says he won’t endorse. The guy learned at an early age that he has no poker face anyway so he tends to be a straight shooter. In fact, if it weren’t for his politics, I otherwise find Huckabee to be an appealing human being and electric bass player.

Still, that lack of a poker face tells us what Huck – and many like him – are really thinking. On his December 13 radio show, The Huckabee Report, the 2008 Iowa victor reviewed the December 10 debate between the GOP candidates. Read the transcription carefully:

“There was yet another debate Saturday, and for sheer entertainment value, it’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of movies topping it. It had all the makings of high drama: a new kingpin in Newt Gingrich, whom everyone was trying to take down. The squeaky-clean second in command, Mitt Romney, tempted by the dark side to turn dirty against Newt to save himself. And all the others, jockeying for advantage like the scheming lords in a Shakespearean play. The only thing it was missing was that welcome touch of humor that Herman Cain used to bring. But with the first votes in Iowa looming, the plot is thickening and there’s no place for comic relief anymore.”

Okay, can we all agree based on those words that Huckabee doesn’t like Romney and he’s fond of Gingrich? Read on to see evidence of a rather well-developed man-crush…

“As expected, the slings and arrows were mostly aimed at Newt Gingrich, but he did such a good job of knocking them out of the air, it was almost like watching a ninja movie. When accused of flip-flopping on supporting a health insurance mandate, he deftly explained his shift while accusing the accuser of getting the facts wrong. When the moderators brought up marital fidelity in an obvious attempt to throw him, Newt humbly admitted that he’d fallen short before finding redemption. That’s an answer that evangelical voters can relate to. And when he was attacked on the big manufactured outrage of the day, his comment that the concept of the “Palestinian people” was a fairly recent invention, he let the other candidates finesse their answers. Then he stepped up to the plate and shattered the whole PC web they’d spun around him by not only standing by his words, but citing specific instances of the Palestinian leaders’ ties to terrorism. He said it was high that time that someone told the truth about the Middle East in the same way that Ronald Reagan ignored all the warnings from soft-soap diplomats and called the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that needed to tear down the Berlin Wall….

“After the debate, the analysts were sifting through transcripts, looking for turning points. Did Michele Bachmann entice any Cain supporters? Did Romney alienate the unemployed by offering a facetious $10,000 bet to Rick Perry? But most seem to have missed the real news. Maybe because media people are so awash in a sea of politically-correct weasel words themselves, they might not realize just how hungry many Americans are for someone who will tell it to them straight, instead of soft-peddling the facts and trying not to offend anyone. They were so busy being horrified at what Gingrich said about the Middle East that they didn’t hear the cheers that erupted coast-to-coast when he refused to back down from it. If there was any turning point in the debate, I’d bet that was it. But I wouldn’t put $10,000 on it…

“Newt Gingrich took a lot of friendly fire in his first big debate as the GOP frontrunner. But he appears to have sailed through in one piece. The latest polls show him solidifying his lead in South Carolina and Florida. But with that top tier status come attacks from all sides…

“Meanwhile, with the first Iowa votes now less than a month away, his rivals are turning up the heat. Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are running scathing ads against Gingrich. But strategically, that’s actually good for Newt. There was never any question that whoever was in front was going to be blasted. But Newt has been the candidate who, all along, refused to attack his rivals and reminded them to keep the focus on the job Barack Obama has been doing. If he’d gone into primary season as the candidate who obeyed Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment not to attack a fellow Republican, then violated that principle, it would reflect badly on him. By waiting until the other candidates attacked him, he can attack in return, but look like he’s just defending himself. And believe me, in this type of situation, it’s much better to be the one who responds than the one who attacks first. Voters often don’t hear the original attack, but they hear the frontrunner’s response.”

Thus spoke Huckabee. And that’s not bad political analysis albeit from a guy who seems to wish he was in the field even after he decided not to run.

Now, when Bachman, Perry and Cain fell from their fifteen minutes atop the polls, they handled it badly and the honeymoons were definitively off. Cain is out for good, and The Field does not see Bachman or Perry reemerging. I don't see either winning the Iowa caucuses.

Gingrich, however, is handling his late dip in the polls like the political “ninja” that Huckabee drooled over. Newt has done two smart things:

The first Newtonian chess move can be read in this CNN headline: “Gingrich lowers expectations, shoots for top three or four in Iowa.” He followed it with: "I probably will be in the top two in New Hampshire, and then to win South Carolina and Florida."

And that’s Gingrich’s ace up his sleeve: He’s got a firewall around the South’s winner-take-all primaries that General Sherman couldn’t march through, much less Mitt Romney. All Newt has to do is survive Iowa and New Hampshire, and then comes the Georgian’s moment in the sun with a string of victories below the Mason-Dixon line.

The other thing Newt did as his numbers started to slip was, from a tactical standpoint, very Reaganesque: He gave GOP faithful more red meat than the other candidates have been able to feed them to date. Now he’s threatening to invade the judicial branch of government from the executive, saying he’ll force the removal of court judges that issue rulings he and the conservative base do not like.

Even Huckabee is uncomfortable with Gingrich’s latest maneuver:

“Politically, he has a point — it’s a great applause line. I like Newt, and I think he’s a great candidate, but I’m very uncomfortable with some of the things he’s saying,” Huckabee said. “When you start talking about defying a court — you know, I was a governor for 10-and-a-half years — there wasn’t a month of my tenure that I didn’t have some court decision, either state, Supreme, or federal court that came and issued a ruling that I didn’t particularly like.

“That didn’t give me the opportunity to say: ‘I’m just not going to obey it,’ or ‘I’m going to call the judge in or one of the Supreme Court justices, and I’m going to call him up before the legislature and clean his clock.’ You just can’t do that,” Huckabee said. “In 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, there was a governor who stood at the schoolhouse door at Central High School and said nine black students couldn’t go through that door, because he didn’t like the court order — that’s not the way you govern — you change laws; you amend the constitution, but you just don’t just say: ‘I don’t like it; therefore, I’m not going to do it.’”

But guess what? Huckabee is a better person than most of the rank-and-file conservative Republican caucus-goers, many of whom think that the 1950s Arkansas governor was brave and right for blocking the schoolhouse door from black children! They’re gonna love this eggnog that Gingrich is pouring into their Yule cups!

Also in the news, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, a key bloc in the Christian Right, has now endorsed and says he will campaign in Iowa for Gingrich. (Other religious right leaders have joined a late surge for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and I'll get to that before this essay is done.)

And as if the specter of Romney wasn’t enough for the old Moral Majority crowd in all its current infestations and splinter groups, now they’re in a pincer-grip with their fear of Romney on one side being squeezed on the other by Ron Paul’s late surge in the polls.

I thought long and hard about whether to imitate Rush Limbaugh and create a 2011 version of “Operation Chaos” (when he instructed his listeners to take Democratic primary ballots to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to weaken Obama for the general election), and do as Andrew Sullivan has done (he endorsed Paul last week).

After all, the Doctor Jekyll part of Doctor Paul is damn good: Legalize drugs! Stop foreign wars! And a Paul v. Obama general election campaign could really push the President into surrendering to the inevitable generational change to come on drug policy. I would love to see that happen and probably a lot of you would too.

The problem with that scenario isn’t even the Mister Hyde part of Doctor Paul and his more whacky positions on other issues, not even his racist newsletter of yesteryears that the media has suddenly discovered (such “revelations,” in fact, can only help him with the GOP base). Rather, it’s this: Ron Paul can win Iowa and even possibly win New Hampshire, but he would still go down to defeat before the GOP nominates its 2012 candidate. He is not going to be the nominee. Take that to the bank. The Republican establishment would rally around anyone to stop him. And I would wager that Paul would not handle a fall from frontrunner any better than Bachman, Perry or Cain did. He’s not ready for that kind of prime time. I’m almost sorry to say that, because I have good friends that I respect that believe in Doctor Paul, and I hate to pop the air from their balloon at the dawn of their newfound hope. But if there’s one thing you get from The Field, it’s an honest assessment of what I think will happen before it happens, and there it is.

And while the “conventional wisdom” (the kind that is always wrong) spouts that a Paul victory in Iowa would hurt Gingrich’s chances, I would argue that it could be the best thing for Gingrich, because it puts Paul into play in New Hampshire where Romney otherwise should win there convincingly, and ties Romney down in the Granite State while Newt races ahead to plant the anti-Mormon land mines (yes, I know it makes some uncomfortable to hear any acknowledgement that there is still bigotry in the United States, but that's reality) in South Carolina and the rest of Dixie.

Paul, simply put, cannot withstand the scrutiny that would come upon him as an Iowa caucus winner. His ideas and positions, especially the best of them – the positions I agree with! – are too far outside the mainstream of thought in the far-right cauldron of Republican primary voters nationwide.

Gingrich knows this, which is why he can nonchalantly lower expectations for Iowa (which if he then wins it by “surprise” would make him the superstar Comeback Kid of the cycle, damning Romney before he even gets to New Hampshire). And so the mini-momentum of Paul provides another perfect foil for Gingrich’s red meat butchershop:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich took a swipe at rival Ron Paul on Thursday, suggesting that the Texas congressman's political base consists of "people who want to legalize drugs."

During a radio interview with conservative commentator John McCaslin, the former House speaker also said Paul is naive about the war on terrorism and Iran's nuclear program. "This is a guy who basically says, if the United States were only nice, it wouldn't have had 9/11. He doesn't want to blame the bad guys. ... He dismisses the danger of Iranian nuclear weapon and seems to be indifferent to the idea that Israel could be wiped out. And as I said, I think the key to his volunteer base is people who want to legalize drugs."

And the average Republican caucus voter, especially that 44 percent of hard core religious righters that are waiting for God to tell them which candidate to support, seeing Romney on one side of them, and Paul on the other, are probably going to start to hear that bold and masculine heavenly voice, with the reverb turned to ten, sooner rather than later, telling them that Gingrich is the only of their “acceptable” candidates tough enough to dispose of both Romney and Paul.

Nationwide, Gingrich has dipped in recent polls but still leads by an average of 3.8 percentage points. He has a breadth of support that none of his rivals have throughout the country. Republicans may not like him that much, but votes are not a Facebook status update for these people. Thirty one percent of Iowa Republicans still believe that Obama was born outside of the United States! That’s who they’re obsessed with. And they'd take almost anybody they thought might defeat him. And the more his rivals put Gingrich in the position where he seems justified acting tough and aggressive (which is his true nature) the more Republicans are going to conclude that he’s the guy with the backbone and the upper right cut to bloody up Obama. Sorry, but Romney and Paul do not inspire that kind of gladiator imagery.

Before concluding, I’ll say a few words about former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. He could still surprise in Iowa. With the graceless falls of Bachman and Perry, it’s now between Santorum and Gingrich as to who can possibly coalesce the Evangelical right behind one candidate in Iowa. But that would require a sudden Santorum surge in the New Year’s Des Moines Register poll. Short of that, either the Evangelical right remains divided, allowing Romney or Paul to thread the Hawkeye State needle, or, as it has in the past (anybody remember Pat Robertson’s victory there in 1988?), it will have a late break behind Gingrich or Santorum, and so far, Gingrich has a huge advantage in the mini-primary to become the anti-Romney and the anti-Paul.

In conclusion: I’m not ready to call Iowa yet for Gingrich or anyone else. I want to see the Des Moines Register poll in two weekends, not because I think it will provide a perfect snapshot, but, rather, because it will fix the expectations and the perceptions of which candidates have momentum. It will be at that moment that opinion starts to break.

And even if Romney or Paul win in Iowa, I am ready to project that, win or lose the first caucuses, Gingrich is not going away, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries down the stretch, especially in the South, and I still think, as I wrote here in April 2010, that the media – perhaps partly out of the intense personal dislike he provokes – has always underestimated him. I dislike him, too. But that doesn’t color the cold and rational projections that y’all rely on me to make. This should have been evident to all the “professionals” of the pundit class 20 months ago! Of all the GOP hopefuls, he’s the only man with a plan. That makes him armed and dangerous and nothing that has happened so far, not even his sudden dip in Iowa polls, causes me to reconsider my general sense that in the sum of all the primaries and caucuses of the coming months, Newt Gingrich is likely to carve his initials with a switchblade through Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, or anyone else he perceives as standing between him and the Republican nomination.

And if that works for Gingrich in the primaries, he’ll then bring that knife to the gunfight of the general election. And that will likely have a less stellar outcome for him. So, put the popcorn on the fire and let’s sit back and watch the Republicans, for a change, kick the crap out of each other in a contest that is practically designed for the meanest man to win.

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