The Palmetto Payoff

In the 19th century, sailing ships plying the lucrative China trade out of Baltimore had a harsh but economic way of dealing with crew at the end of a two-year voyage. With the homeport in sight, the captain would use the heavy boom to knock a crewman into the water, thereby banking his pay. It was known as The Baltimore Payoff.

Mitt Romney got the Palmetto Payoff Saturday night, a swift hit upside the head from South Carolina Republicans that shattered his image as the party’s inevitable nominee. His double-digit defeat at the hands of the resurgent Newt Gingrich changed the equation in the Republican race and assured that this already long primary season will continue into the spring. Romney may yet win the nomination, but not without a fight.

Florida is a different ball game, as should be apparent in tonight’s debate on NBC. The Massachusetts Moderate is likely to swing hard at Gingrich, depicting the former Speaker as a failed leader. Gingrich, if he is as smart as he thinks he is, will adopt a more Presidential posture to help wavering Republicans envision him in the Oval Office.

The debates are more than just Reality TV.

They have become the central focus of the campaign in which candidates define or destroy themselves. And for Gingrich, whose campaign is still under-financed, they are the ultimate in free TV. It was no surprise, then, when Gingrich promised on Saturday night to challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates during the general election campaign. No sitting President would give his opponent such a gift of free exposure, of course, but the prospect enhanced Gingrich’s image as a scrappy fighter willing to confront Obama.

Since we have to wait two more weeks for the Superbowl, tonight’s debate will have to fill the void.

Forgive Me

I just watched the Republican Presidential debate from South Carolina. I just watched the remaining four candidates argue about everything from abortion to immigration to taxes to tax returns. It left me with one puzzling question:


Who are these simpletons who cheer wildly at every cheap, transparent, pandering, intellectually empty applause line?
What are they thinking? Are they thinking? Are they so excited about being in the audience that they become robots?


Are they really going to choose the nominee of the Grand Old Party? Are they the Grand Old Party?


A Class Act

Jon Huntsman withdrew from the Republican Presidential sweepstakes today in the same classy fashion that he conducted it.

He acknowledged the reality of his single-digit standing the the polls in South Carolina, endorsed his fellow Mormon Mitt Romney as the candidate with the best chance of challenging Barak Obama, and preserved his option to run again in 2016, should he choose to. The only embarrassed player in the drama was The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, which endorsed Huntsman hours before he withdrew. Next time, the paper’s editorial board had better check its traps before publishing.

Huntsman’s “suspension” of his campaign (a la Herman Cain, no one simply quits a campaign these days,) is a huge boost for Romney. Even if Huntsman was only going to win five or six per cent of the vote in South Carolina, the vast majority of those ballots will go to Romney now, further cementing Mitt’s lock on the nomination.

It is Romney’s to lose now.

A Ticket to Ride?

Jon Huntsman’s third-place finish in New Hampshire, with 17 per cent of the vote, is being characterized by reporters this morning as “disappointing” and “unremarkable.”

I don’t agree.

I think he accomplished a lot in New Hampshire. He climbed into double digits, broadened his appeal, demonstrated surprising support (42 per cent) among those voters who identified themselves in exit polls as Tea Party supporters, improved his style on the stump and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. He even showed a sense of humor here and there.

Huntsman also managed to sharpen his image as a true conservative. He reminded voters that he instituted a flat tax as Governor of Utah, has a strong record as a fiscal conservative and was among the first to voice support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. No liberal, he.

Most importantly, Huntsman remained true to his principles. “I am who I am,” he declared at a rally in Exeter. “I’ve done what I’ve done, and you can take a look at my record. I am not going to contort myself into a pretzel. And I am not going to sign any of these silly pledges.” Take that, Grover Norquist.

He made no apologies for his more moderate positions on climate change and illegal immigration, in contrast to his more wild-eyed competitors. And he defended his service as President Obama’s Ambassador to China, arguing that he was putting his country before party.

Is all this enough to win the Republican nomination? Probably not. He heads today to South Carolina, with its greater proportions of evangelical and deep-vein conservatives. That’s not Huntsman country. But watch closely, if he continues to make progress in the Palmetto state, Florida is next and significantly more hospitable to his brand.

Also, if Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum succeed in their joint efforts to erode Mitt Romney’s image and base, Huntsman will pick up some of the disaffected. He has repeatedly presented himself as the candidate most feared by the Obama campaign. That is true. The Chicago gang doesn’t waste much of its time or money on Huntsman because they don’t think he can gain enough momentum to win the nomination. Not yet.

Arguably, Ron Paul is Huntsman’s biggest obstacle to winning a larger portion of primary votes. Paul’s 23 per cent in New Hampshire was partially at Huntsman’s expense. We will have to see what impact the good doctor has in South Carolina.

A second-place finished in New Hampshire would have caused people to sit up and take notice. But 17 per cent is better than one per cent. Just ask Rick Perry.

Presidential primary campaigns have a way of either enhancing a candidate’s standing and reputation, or diminishing it. Ronald Reagan was taken more seriously as a national figure after 1976, for example, while Senator John McCain’s is less of a voice in his party and in the nation after running so badly (and choosing Sarah Palin) in 2008. A candidate goes up or down once he or she joins the fray, but rarely stays the same.

Jon Huntsman has already enhanced his stature. He was little known outside of Utah and Beijing a year ago. Now he and his beautiful family are widely recognized. Even his critics acknowledge his foreign policy expertise. As demonstrated in New Hampshire, Republicans are starting to give him a look. Is that “disappointing,” or “unremarkable.” Not at all.

Is it “a ticket to ride?” Yes. But how far, remains to be seen.