Business Times - 25 Jan 2012
Republican race gets wide open and more divisive
It's possible the nominee to challenge Obama won't be decided till Republican convention
By LEON HADAR
FORMER Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has lost his earlier designation as his party's presumptive presidential nominee after his electoral defeat in the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina on Saturday.
His margin of defeat of about 14 per cent against Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, was quite devastating for him and came at the end of a week during which the former business executive seemed to be losing his political momentum.
First came the news that after a recount of the votes in the first Republican presidential contest this year, the caucuses in Iowa, Republican officials reversed their earlier estimate - that Mr Romney had come in first - and announced that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had won that race.
Then came the decision by Texas Governor Rick Perry and his endorsement of Mr Gingrich.
Republicans were expecting the social and cultural conservative Perry to do well among the rank and file of the party, especially in southern states such as South Carolina. But Mr Perry's poor performance in the televised debates disappointed many conservative Republicans - including the large contingency of Tea Party members. They also suspect Mr Romney of being a closet liberal.
These conservative Republicans divided their vote between Mr Santorum, the fiery crusader against abortion and gay rights; the veteran libertarian activist Ron Paul, a Congressman from Texas; and Mr Gingrich.
For a while, it seemed that Mr Santorum who came in second place in New Hampshire would be the main beneficiary of the anti-Romney vote. After all, it did not seem likely that the 67-year old thrice married serial adulterer Gingrich - his second wife told reporters last week that Mr Gingrich had suggested that they have an 'open marriage' while continuing an affair with the woman who would eventually become his third wife - would win the hearts and minds of the conservative Christian voters in the Bible Belt in the South.
But the rotund Mr Gingrich defied these low expectations. His oratorical skills and his savage attacks against the 'elite media' and 'secular liberals', spiced with racist innuendos aimed at President Barack Obama - calling him 'the greatest food-stamp president in American history' who exhibits 'anti-American' tendencies - appealed to many conservative Republicans in this former slave state.
According to opinion polls, close to a third of all Republican voters believe that President Obama is a Muslim.
In fact, Mr Gingrich turned around the accusations of adultery against him and exploited the interview with his ex-wife as an opportunity to blast the mainstream media that Republicans love to hate.
Moreover, both Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum have continued to attack Mr Romney of not being a 'real' conservative. He has changed his earlier views on abortion and gay rights - he had supported both in the past - and, as the governor of Massachusetts, crafted government-backed health care insurance plan that served as a model for the one embraced by the president (Obamacare) that Republicans loath.
And then there have been the accusations by Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum that working in Bain Capital, a company that helped restructure and refinance faltering businesses, Mr Romney engaged in so-called 'vulture capitalism' - making loads of money on the backs of laid off American workers.
Indeed, at a time when more and more Americans are becoming concerned over the widening economic gap in the US, these attacks against Mr Romney - a millionaire and a son of a billionaire and by definition, a member of the wealthiest one per cent of Americans - have clearly been hurting the former business executive in states like South Carolina where the unemployment rate is even higher than the (high) average.
Mr Romney has rejected the criticism of his work at Bain Capital and accused his Republican and Democratic attackers of engaging in the 'politics of envy' and in 'class welfare'. But Mr Romney's resistance to releasing his tax returns and reports that he maintains banking accounts in the Cayman Islands - coupled with comments that reflect a lack of concern about the plight of the poor - have raised concerns that he may be 'out of touch' with the economically distressed majority of Americans.
So it is not surprising that even members of the Republican Party's establishment who tend to feel comfortable with Mr Romney's centrist positions are getting worried that their favourite candidate would be vulnerable to the kind of populist us-against-them that President Obama is planning to launch against the Republicans.
The Democratic message is expected to depict the Republicans generally and their presidential candidate as political allies of Big Business who want to reduce taxes for their buddies in Wall Street while slashing social-economic programmes that help blue collar workers and the middle class.
Mr Romney's second place in South Carolina does not mean that he is not going to become the presidential nominee. Nor does Mr Gingrich's victory solidify his position as a front runner. The Republican bosses may be less excited about Mr Romney but they have even less confidence in the ability of the temperamental Mr Gingrich to win the votes of centrist independent voters and may conclude that they have no choice but to mobilise all organisational and financial resources behind the more moderate and telegenic Mr Romney.
In addition, Mr Santorum and Mr Paul are not planning to withdraw from the race anytime soon and will continue to compete with Mr Gingrich over the conservative and the Tea Party vote.
While Mr Romney may have an organisational advantage and the support of the Republican establishment in Florida where the next primary will take place, Mr Gingrich is benefiting from a growing political momentum and Republican sentiment in this southern state where the Republican convention which selects the presidential nominee will take place in the summer.
It is not inconceivable that Mr Romney, Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum and Mr Paul will each arrive to the convention with their delegates and that the choice of the party's presidential nominee will be made there.
Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.